All Commentary
Saturday, February 1, 1992

Book Review: The Emerging British Underclass by Charles Murray


London: The Institute of Economic Affairs: available from Laissez Faire Books, 942 Howard Street, San Francisco, CA 94103 • 1990 • 96 pages • $9.95 paper

In extending our charity we must endeavor to distinguish the really deserving; for those who willingly and professionally seek the charity of others forfeit all self-respect, and, in being content so to live, sacrifice personal dignity.

—Manchester Unity (British

charitable organization), 1938

In 1984 Charles Murray published Losing Ground, an indictment of America’s welfare state. In that book Murray offered statistical proof on the counterproductivity of social engineering and relief measures such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children—that on balance and over time public welfare compounds rather than relieves social despair and destitution. An underclass emerges, persists, grows from one generation to another, with all manner of perverse repercussions.

Now Murray follows up his American analysis with a pared-down study of the British welfare experience and comes up with a similar finding—the rise of a British underclass, the growth of a culture of poverty, of what I call “the professional poor”: those who forgo livelihoods and openly feed at the public trough as a way of life.

Here he is careful to differentiate between the British poor and the underclass. The Bible observes that the poor shall be “always with you.” Similarly, Murray sees that some people will ever be at the bottom, that a bottom in any statistical vertical range of incomes has to occur by definition, that the dynamics of life, history, and economics will necessarily shuffle incomes up and down, that some historians have a point in noting a cycle “from shirt-sleeves to shirt-sleeves in three generations.”

The subsidized underclass is something else. So what gives this latest Murray study special bite is not just his seeing that the underclass is swelling in England, but his observation that three British phenomena which have turned out to be early-warning signals for the American underclass are being insufficiently recognized. This is evident in commentaries by four British sociologists (one of whom is a Labour Member of Parliament) which are included in this volume. The three phenomena are: illegitimacy, violent crime, and labor-force dropouts.

Illegitimacy has escalated in Britain—from 5.1 percent of births to single women as a percentage of all births in 1958 to 25.6 percent in 1988, a five-fold increase in just 30 years. This rising illegitimacy is strikingly concentrated in the underclass, in communities without fathers in the traditional sense. The fewer the fathers, argues Murray, the greater the tendency of children to “run wild,” to abandon schooling and employment, or to become criminals.

Naturally enough, crime also escalates—from 27 crimes of violence per 100,000 population in 1958 to 314 in 1988, with again the preponderance of that crime concentrated in the slum neighborhoods, in males in the second half of their teens.

So school and labor-force dropouts are also on the rise. For to many in the British underclass, work is an aversion. Murray relates an illustrative anecdote. Recently contractors carrying out extensive renovations in a British low-income housing project were obliged to hire local youths for unskilled labor as part of a legislated work-experience program. Thirteen youths were hired. Ten actually showed up on the first day. By the end of the week, only one was still at work.

What Murray is describing is a vicious circle. He sees these social problems as interconnected, as reinforcing one another, with both the dole and drug abuse increasing significantly. He writes:

Young men who are subsisting in crime or the dole are not likely to be trustworthy providers, which makes having a baby without a husband a more practical alternative. If a young man’s girl friend doesn’t need him to help support the baby, it makes less sense for him to plug away at a menial job and more sense to have some fun—which in turn makes hustling and crime more attractive, marriage less attractive. Without a job or family to give life meaning, drugs become that much more valuable as a means of distraction.

Not a pretty picture in Britain. Nor in America. So what to do? In this first-rate study Dr. Murray pleads for central governments in London, Washington, and elsewhere to get out of the way, to return to “authentic self- governing communities” that reward responsibility and stigmatize irresponsibility.

What he is really saying, i think, is that the West has to return to first principles, to basic values such as self- accountability, self-worth, private charities, marriage, families, limited government, private property, the sovereignty of the individual. Social engineering is an oxymoron. The welfare state everywhere is bankrupt. []

Dr. Peterson, Heritage Foundation adjunct scholar, holds the Lundy Chair of Business Philosophy at Campbell University, Buies Creek, North Carolina.


  • William H. Peterson (1921-2012) was an economist, businessman and author who wrote extensively on Austrian Economics. He completed his PhD at New York University in 1952 under the supervision of Ludwig von Mises.