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A Note on the Meaning of "Underclass"

10 July 2002

Gail Kligman, János Ladanyi, and Iván Szelényi1

Roma Rights 1/2002 addressed the theme of "Extreme Poverty". A number of readers told us that in that issue, we had not adequately explored the idea of an "underclass". We are therefore using part of this issue's "Reaction" rubric to follow up and publish a note on the idea of an "underclass". Following this article, James Whooley responds to articles in our previous issue by offering thoughts on the neccessity of recognising poverty as an issue of inequality. Roma Rights 1/2002 is available in full on the Internet at: Extreme Poverty .

Throughout Central and Eastern Europe, the term "underclass" has increasingly been associated in public discourse with Roma. As a result, it has gained a popularised currency beyond academic debates. As researchers who ourselves engage the underclass concept in our work, we feel it is important to clarify the meaning of "underclass". Popular connotations and an over-generalised appropriation of this controversial, "loaded" term may contribute to problematic misconceptions and distortions. Hence, a short review of the underclass seems to be in order.

"Underclass" was introduced by Gunnar Myrdal in 1964 to refer to those people who, in the context of postwar restructuring in advanced Western economies, were excluded from the increasing affluence of postwar capitalist societies. As their skills were devalued, the underclass were allocated to the bottom of society's socio-economic hierarchy, separated from the rest of society by a widening social distance and impenetrable social boundaries. Urban Black ghettos were exemplary of the growing underclass although they were not its exclusive representatives. Intractable and deepening poverty characterized life in these ghettos, a poverty that was likely to be reproduced across generations. For Myrdal, the underclass resulted from changing economic structures.

The underclass concept was complemented by Oscar Lewis's "culture of poverty" thesis that pertained to the problems of the deeply impoverished in developing countries. Lacking any hope, Lewis wrote of the coping strategies by which the poorest of the poor managed to survive, eking out their daily existence. Lewis viewed the "culture of poverty" as historically specific, emerging out of the problems of societal transition and the breakdown of the social order.

From the late 1960s on, these concepts – underclass and culture of poverty – were differently construed. Rather than emerging from changing economic and social structures, the underclass seemingly resulted from the "culture of poverty" itself. Moreover, race became its defining feature. The shift in the usage of these terms was significant: a structural explanation of poverty that also gave rise to cultural practices associated with poverty became a cultural, behavioural explanation of a racially-constituted underclass. This wave of theorising was strongly criticized for blaming the victim and of representing the neoconservative attack on the welfare state.

In the 1970s, the sociologist William Julius Wilson, in his important book, The Declining Significance of Race, reformulated the debate in important ways, returning to the structural roots of underclass formation. He argued that de-industrialisation and resultant job losses in urban Black ghettos were responsible for the rise of a class of permanently unemployed and unemployable Blacks. The nuance of Wilson's argument is crucial to understanding the socio-economic dynamics of the meaning of the underclass. Wilson did not imply that urban Blacks in and of themselves constitute an underclass; any equation between Blacks (i.e. race) and underclass is simply wrong. Rather, he maintained, the significance of race itself declined in relation to economic restructuring. That is, Blacks were differentially affected by de-industrialisation. Some were devastated by it. Others benefited from economic opportunities. Upwardly mobile, they formed part of a new Black middle case that moved out of the inner-city urban ghettoes. Those who remained in the inner-city areas, however, were employed in the sectors hardest hit by de-industrialisation. They found their skills had become useless, their jobs and livelihoods gone. They were increasingly locked into extreme poverty. According to Wilson, prior to de-industrialisation, the inner city neighbourhoods had been socially mixed. Economic restructuring brought both social and spatial segregation of the urban ghettoes, whose inhabitants were the emergent underclass.

Despite the differences among those theorising the underclass, there are certain consistent factors. For example, most would agree that those forming the underclass live in extreme and life-long poverty that tends to be inherited by their children. Moreover, the underclass is usually spatially or geographically separated from the "mainstream" of society. And unlike the poor, members of the underclass are often seen by others as a category of persons who draw on social resources rather than contributing to the welfare of society.

What then do these variations of underclass theorising have to do with Roma? We draw on underclass theorising in a historically-specific manner: post-socialist transformation throws into dramatic relief an emergent class stratification within an ethnic category, in this case, Roma. Post-socialist de-industrialisation and de-collectivisation (via privatisation) have negatively impacted many Roma. For those so affected, there appears to be an emergent underclass formation underway of Roma who today are increasingly excluded socially and economically. They remain unemployed, unemployable, and spatially segregated. At the same time, other Roma have seized economic opportunities and are upwardly mobile. It is this fundamental dynamic of increasing socio-economic exclusion, on the one hand, and socio-economic improvement, on the other, that makes it possible to speak of underclass formation. There is no inherent relationship between class and Roma, or class and race/ethnicity. Thus, we underscore that it is misguided to ask whether or not Roma – as a generic classification – form an underclass. This is a distortion of the sociological meaning of this term. It is precisely the class stratification within an ethnic category that turns the poorest of the poor – who may simultaneously be classified in ethnic or racial terms – into an underclass. Racism itself does not decline, but rather the importance of race as a general category of belonging declines. Wilson's "declining significance of race" is an analytic distinction that must be recognised; it has no bearing on the intensity of racism. "Underclass" then pertains to a certain class of Roma (and others) who are increasingly excluded in socio-economic and spatial terms. Underclass does not by any means apply to all Roma. But it does apply to certain segments of the wider Romani communities. Our research, amongst that of others, points to an historically-specific (i.e. post-socialist) emergence of what may be considered Romani underclass formation. We emphasise that there is considerable variation across countries and communities. We find that "underclass" in this dynamic and nuanced sociological sense is empirically meaningful. We urge scholars, human rights advocates and policy makers alike to employ this term prudently, respectful of its insightful sociological specificity and mindful of the pitfalls of indiscriminate usage.


  1. Mr Gail Kligman is Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and has written widely on culture, politics, and gender in East Central Europe. Mr János Ladányi is Professor of Sociology at the Budapest University of Economics. Mr Iván Szelényi is Professor of Sociology at Yale Univerity.

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