There seems to be a surge in the UK at the moment of the American idea of the existence of the underclass, not only in the usual right-wing circles (see e.g. ‘Glasgow: the new Gaza’ in the Business newspaper, but also among such people as the maverick Labour MP Frank Field (http://society.guardian.co.uk/futureforpublicservices/story/0,,1683204,00.html). It also seems to be lurking in some of the Governments pronouncements on Something for Something and threats to cut benefits. The underclass tends to be defined ostensibly as some feral sub-section of the poor, who have rejected the positive values of society and any sense of responsibility. (Its noticeable, however, that discussions soon slide into criteria of being on Invalidity Benefit long term, drug statistics and the like, which have no necessary connection with a persons lack of moral framework, but are easier to measure).
The first historical analogy which came into my mind was the Victorian distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor. I know about this mainly from George Bernard Shaw and Pygmalion. Alfred Doolittle in this is the proud representative of the undeserving poor. (This also shows how the concept mutates over time: Doolittle drinks too much, has fathered Eliza out of wedlock and is vaguely criminal, but he is employed). But I wasnt sure if the Victorians had invented the concept. Then I came across a chapter in Christopher Hills Puritanism and Revolution on William Perkins and the Poor. (It was also in Past and Present (1952), issue 2 ).
Perkins was the first systematic Calvinist theologian in England who also had a clearly defined attitude towards social problems. He was influential in the reign of Elizabeth I both as a writer of treatises and even more as a teacher. Hill places him squarely in the middle of a change of ethics between a traditional mediaeval catholic economic morality on the defensive and a Protestant and capitalist ethic on the offensive. The Puritan response to increased vagabondage in sixteenth century England is interesting. People were increasingly driven below the poverty-line by a combination of reduction of feudal households and those driven off the land by rising rents or simply evicted. The growth of capitalism broke personal bonds between lords and tenants to replace it with an impersonal labour market. There was no gain from charity for the new small businessmen and the concern shifted to poor relief, provided that it didnt interfere with productive forces.
The belief was that in the long-term these productive forces would solve the problems of poverty. Hill comments:
In the meantime the poor must be prevented by coercive measures from revolting, and, by relief, from reaching a stage of destitution that would make them socially menacing. But the main problem was to transform the mental outlook of the lower orders so that they no longer waited at the rich mans gate for charity, but went out to offer their services on the labour market. Hence the sharp distinction drawn by the poor laws between the impotent but deserving poor and the sturdy rogues. …indiscriminate charity, from the point of view of Puritans and employers alike, was a social menace. It prevented the poor from realizing their responsibilities and seriously looking for employment.
The result was a national programme of compulsion and discipline: houses of correction, family means tests, forcible apprenticing of pauper children to a trade. This attitude of mind and this programme survived until the early twentieth century in the Poor Law (and the workhouse). What Perkins and his like provided was a theological backing to the capitalist economic demand for the creation of the wage system. As Hill puts it: it is very much nicer for a business man, finding himself under strong economic pressure to indulge in actions traditionally held to be sinful, to be told that those actions are in fact in accordance with the will of God.
Perkins starts from the idea that every person has some calling, and must therefore labour industriously in that occupation. If they do so, they will have sufficient. Why are there therefore so many vagabonds? Perkins says They are (for the most part) a cursed generation…They joyne not themselves to any setled congregation for the obtaining of Gods kingdome, and so this promise [of having sufficient for this life] belongs not to them. Those who are not part of the settled community are outside the church and this in itself is evidence of divine disapproval. It is only those with a minimum of worldly property and security who can therefore hope to be saved. Perkins, of course, has to read the Bible in a peculiar way and deduce that When Jesus told us not to lay up treasures upon earth he did not intend altogether to forbid the fruition and possession of goods and riches; but only covetousness and excess. (He then shows his true middle class nature – the judgement of what is sufficient is to be made by the godly man himself).
The problem of creating a new mental outlook was not solely or even primarily a matter of re-educating the paupers themselves. The whip and the branding-iron, and the pressure of starvation, would no doubt have done the job in time. Nor was there any insuperable difficulty in persuading the rich to close their purses, or at least to divert their charity into new directions. The real problem was…the artisan and peasant majority of the population…few villagers, few artisans near the poverty line would lightly believe that original sin was the sole cause of vagabondage.
Similarly, if youre among the working class, even now, its not hard to imagine yourself sinking down into the chronically unemployed and the lost. If youre in the prosperous middle class its all too easy to imagine it will never happen to you and that thus those at the bottom must be indicating their moral failings.
I dont know how much purchase the idea of the underclass will get in the UK, which is far less Calvinist that the USA. I hope that memories of the last great attempts at Workfare will limit its introduction: New Labour, New Workhouse? I want to write more about the specifically modern aspects at a later date, but I thought this historical background might be illuminating.