DEFINITION: “Underclass” is a recently invented term, which refers to an age-old phenomenon: namely, that part of the population of most societies, in all times and places, which is either unable or unwilling to work for a living and lives on the charity of other individuals or of private or public institutions.

ETYMOLOGY: The term “underclass” was invented during the second half of the twentieth century by English-speaking social scientists.

The term corresponds, more or less, to the older German term “Lumpenproletariat,” which derived from the Latin word prōlētarius, meaning a member of the lowest layer of Roman society, and the German word, Lumpen, meaning “rags.”

The Latin word “prōlētarius” was taken up by Karl Marx. Within his analysis of the social structure of capitalist society in which economic class predominated, Marx used the corresponding German word id Proletariat to indicate the laboring class (which, however, does not correspond to the meaning of the original Latin word).

Lumpenproletariat,” then, means “the proletariat in rags.” This is as vivid and descriptive a way as any of indicating the socioeconomic reality referred to by the English word “underclass,” as well.

USAGE: In more traditional societies, the underclass is largely composed of individuals who have suffered misfortune of one sort or another, and cannot work for a living. For example, in the Bible there is a great emphasis on helping “widows and orphans.”

In such societies, the “social safety net” originally consisted primarily of one’s extended family and, later on, of institutions like temples, churches, and mosques.

In more recent times, people have tended to look to their government to help the members of the underclass.

For this reason, in part, the notion of the underclass has become a major subject of public discussion among politicians, economists, and many others. Such discussions tend to be quite controversial.

When it comes to economic analysis, the fundamental question has tended to be the following:

  • Is the existence of the underclass primarily due to prevailing economic and social structures?
  • Or is the existence of the underclass primarily due to the behavior of the individual members of the underclass themselves?

Progressive economists tend to believe that the underclass could be eliminated (and full employment attained), if only the capitalist system could be modified to operate more fairly.

Conservative economists tend to believe that the underclass is a permanent fact of human life because it is a permanent potentiality of human nature.

Conservatives tend to agree with progressives that in the modern world it is appropriate for the government to provide a social safety net. They merely hold that recipients of public largesse be restricted to victims of misfortune who have become a member of the underclass through no fault of their own.

Conservatives point out that the fewer the conditions that are imposed on the recipients of public largesse, the more individuals there will be who seek handouts in the future. In other words, strict conditions on the safety welfare net are necessary to counteract the moral hazard it essentially poses.

Progressives reject all such reasoning about moral hazard as “blaming the victim.” Because they believe the underclass is due to structural factors, not to individual behavior, they refuse to distinguish between members of the underclass who are the victims of circumstances and those who are the victims of their own lack of virtue, addiction, or other failings of character.

To revert to an older vocabulary, conservatives wish to distinguish within the underclass between the “deserving poor” and the “undeserving poor.”

Progressives believe such a distinction to be unwarranted and morally retrograde.