In the 1980s and ’90s all these swirling issues came together in a colourful and often charged debate about the underclass. The word seems to have originated in the US in the 1970s, at first without insinuating anything pejorative – it just meant people at the bottom of the heap. But it sounded like underworld and quickly carried echoes of dissoluteness and criminality.
The term underclass was also reminiscent of the German Nazi word untermensch (meaning sub-human), used to disparage Jews, Slavs, Gypsies and anyone else reviled on grounds of ideology.
Until the Reformation it was the duty of every citizen to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked and minister to the sick in accordance with Christian teaching.
Christians were expected to observe the seven corporal works of mercy according to Matthew Chapter 25 v. 35–6: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
The Elizabethan poor law of 1563 set the tone for the way we think and act today. The destitute were to be registered and sorted into three categories: the impotent deserving poor (those who were too sick, to young or too old to work, who were to be given indoor relief in almshouses, poorhouses and the like), the able-bodied deserving poor (the unemployed, who were given outdoor relief by the parish or put to work for a wage), and the undeserving or idle poor (who were to be whipped through the streets until they saw the error of their ways).
The 1563 Act was followed by three further measures and consolidated in the famous Poor Law of 1601.
In 1984, the American libertarian Charles Murray published Losing Ground, which excoriated President Kennedy’s welfare revolution of the 1960s.
Charles A. Murray, Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950–1980, Basic Books, NY, 1984, ISBN 0-465-04231-7. Murray had no real answers at first, believing individual poverty was not amenable to government intervention; but some twenty years later he published a manifesto, In Our Hands, describing welfare as the bureaucracy of compassion which had become the ministry of misery, and proposing the abolition of all federal healthcare, housing, training, education, social services and income support, and their replacement with negative income tax – an annual $10,000 payment to every citizen. In Our Hands, American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, Washington DC, 2006, ISBN-10 0-8447-4223-6.
One of the implications of welfare-scepticism is that handouts encourage fecklessness; and there is a powerful school of thought that it encourages teenage pregnancies. But is it true? Would slashing welfare would make much difference? Short of a giant experiment there is no way of telling, but research by journalists – always keen to find a scandal – has found little evidence of cunning vixens out to milk the welfare state. In 2006 a British TV series explored the world of Britain’s Youngest Mums and the message that emerged is that most of them were imprudent and impetuous children who got pregnant because they wanted sex, rather than because they wanted babies or a social handout. No doubt there are other, more calculating girls who are on the make, but the producers failed to find them, though they tried. The ones they did portray didn’t so much lack scruples as maturity.
Charlotte Maddox from Paignton in Devon didn’t think she could get pregnant at the age of 13. The first she knew was when she gave birth when going to the lavatory. She looked 11, and acted younger, and was in care at the time because she was out of control. Pascale Thornton was a posh pony girl from Shropshire who also didn’t know she was pregnant until she gave birth having just turned 17. The father is long gone, but her family have enough money to cope.
Tiffany Carol, another 17 year-old who got pregnant ‘by accident’ and was worried it would ruin her life. Natalie Scanlon from Manchester was, at 16, the youngest mum to give birth to triplets. The father had two other children by two other different women but contributed nothing. Natalie received free housing and around £150 a week, but according to Natalie’s mother her pregnancy had nothing to do with money. ‘I just should have put a pill in her Weetabix every day.’
For those who believe in a quick fiscal fix, such responses are a bit dispiriting.
More ominously, in a throwback to the alarming predictions of Thomas Malthus, Murray warned that this underclass – ‘the New Rabble’, as he called them – was fast breeding greater trouble for the future.
Charles Murray later amplified this in his most famous (and to some, notorious) work, The Bell Curve (1994), co-written with Richard Herrnstein, which proposed that poor people, and black people, are genetically inferior.
He was equally clear that single mothers were to blame. He lamented the loss of shame and stigma about illegitimacy, and scorned the welfare and housing systems which demolished financial disincentives to having children outside marriage.
Conservatives have long cited a perverse tax-and-benefits regime which penalises married couples and rewards lone parents. See, for example: Jill Kirby, The Price of Parenthood, Centre for Policy Studies, 2005. Liberals tend to claim such reports are selective and misleading and point out that many lone parents live in poverty. Even so, unmarried parents undoubtedly have enjoyed some cash advantages over married ones, and it would be odd, and contrary to much that is known about fiscal carrots, if such incentives had no effect at all on rates of marriage.
I like the idea that children should be brought up in loving, stable relationships with a mother and a father, or at least that they should have good role models for each gender.
It remains to be seen whether same-sex relationships can provide equivalent role models for boys and girls as traditionally mothers and fathers have done; but assuming there are masculine and feminine counterparts – and above all love – it would be surprising if not.
According to European victimisation surveys, crime followed a universal trend, soaring to a peak in the early 1990s and declining thereafter, just as it did in the USA. And the countries with the highest rates of illegitimate births were not the same countries which had the highest rates of crime.
This is illustrated by using homicide rates since there is relatively little variability in how these offences are recorded. The highest proportion of births outside marriage was in Sweden with 56 per cent, while the lowest was in Greece with 4 per cent. Yet the homicide rate in Greece was higher than that in Sweden. Incidentally, the UK’s rate of births outside marriage was higher than the EU average, along with Denmark, France and Finland. Although England, Wales and France had similar homicide rates, Scotland’s was much higher and Finland’s was almost double. (Source: Eurostat.)
…there is some evidence that unmarried parents are much more likely to break up than married ones, often affecting children who are very young indeed.
UK divorce rates have not changed much in twenty-five years, and marriage rates have started to recover. The greater stability of marriage, contrasting with much higher break-up rates of cohabiting couples, is claimed by an analysis based on data from the Office of National Statistics compiled in 2005 by a Christian pro-family campaigner, Harry Benson, who runs the Bristol Community Family Trust [www.2-in-2-1.co.uk/php-bin/jump.php?linkid=198].
…a survey in the late 1990s found more offending by youngsters from single-parent households or stepfamilies than by those living with two natural parents. But curiously, and in contrast to Murray’s theory, the risk was starker for girls.
Claire Flood-Page, Siobhan Campbell, Victoria Harrington and Joel Miller, Youth Crime: Findings from the 1998/99 Youth Lifestyles Survey Home Office Research Study 209 This was a survey of twelve- to thirty-year-olds living in private households. Serious and/or persistent offender was defined as: ‘Someone who, in the last year, had committed three or more minor offences and/or at least one serious offence – stealing a car or motor-bike, burglary, snatch theft, pick-pocketing, threatening someone to get money or possessions from them, assault (either of family members or others) or hurting someone with a weapon.’ Eighteen per cent of those living in single parents families and 16 per cent of those in stepfamilies were serious and/or persistent offenders compared with 11 per cent of those living with two natural parents. In contrast to Murray’s theory the risk was starker for girls and especially for girls with stepfathers: 9 per cent of those living in stepfamilies were serious and/or persistent offenders compared with 4 per cent of those living in lone parent families or with two natural parents. This report also contains information on the link between offending and having a poor relationship with parents.
Charles Murray continues to proselytise, describing Western Europe as ‘the canary in the coal mine’
American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, Washington DC, 2006, ISBN-10 0-8447-4223-6.
The idea that abortion helped reverse the crime wave was popularised by Freakonomics, the bestseller by economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen Dubner.
Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, Freakonomics: A rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything, HarperCollins, NY, 2005, ISBN 0-06 073132-X
Abortion had mostly been illegal in the US until the 1960s, when several states began to liberalise the law.
Five states had made it widely available: Alaska, California, Hawaii, New York and Washington.
Soon academic detractors began to emerge, picking apart several complex assumptions on which Donohue and Levitt had constructed their intellectual palace. Some of the arguments were esoteric and couched in economists’ jargon, with talk about zero-inflated negative binomial regressions and whether standard errors are clustered correctly, and so forth.
Economists might like to know that the criticisms essentially boiled down to three issues: data (how should we measure crime or abortion?), modelling (e.g. should you analyse individual cohorts of children growing up or aggregated data; how do you factor in racial differences or the crack cocaine epidemic?) and econometrics (with different researchers taking different statistical approaches).
The British liberalised their abortion laws in the 1960s, five years earlier than the US
The Abortion Act of 1967 came into effect in April 1968, five years before Roe v. Wade in the US.
Just as contraception is used more methodically by people who are well informed and cautious rather than by those who are less educated and impetuous, so it is the richer, better-educated women who are likely least likely to take unplanned pregnancies to term.
‘More deprived areas have higher conception rates and a lower proportion of under-18 pregnancies ending in abortion.’ Ellie Lee, Steve Clements, Roger Ingham and Nicole Stone, A Matter of Choice? Explaining national variation in teenage abortion and motherhood, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, York, ISBN 1859351816, 2004, p. 48. Similarly, ‘teenage abortees are more likely than those who carry their pregnancies to full-term to be contraceptive users, single, have high educational status or occupational aspirations, and to be of high socioeconomic status,’ Susan Moore and Doreen Rosenthal, Sexuality in Adolescence, Routledge, London,1993, p. 151.
One of the best predictors of crime may be having no parents to care for one at all. Eight per cent of the prisoners had spent most of their childhood in an institution, and 26 per cent said that at some time in their childhood they had been taken into local authority care.
T. Dodd and P. Hunter, The National Prison Survey 1991: A Report to the Home Office of a Study of Prisoners in England and Wales, HMSO, 1992. Certainly prisoners typically fitted Murray’s paradigm about low social class. Yet 62 per cent spent their childhood with both parents, 5 per cent with a parent and a step-parent, 19 per cent with one parent, and 4 per cent with other relatives. Even if one makes the pessimistic (and unwarranted) assumption that all the ‘other relatives’ lived as single people, not couples, that means about a quarter of the prisoners (19 per cent plus 4 per cent) came from one-parent households, which is close to the average make-up of British households.
Nor is fostering always the ideal; being looked after is not always the same as being cared for. A massive survey in 2004 found half of all sixteen-year-olds admitted to breaking the law but so-called ‘looked after’ children confessed to twice as much theft and almost twice as much violence. They were also far more likely to be bullied and to carry a knife to school or be excluded from class.
Derrick Armstrong, Jean Hine, Sue Hacking, Remos Armaos, Roy Jones, Nicolai Klessinger, Alan France, Children, risk and crime: the On Track Youth Lifestyles Surveys, Home Office Research Study 278, 2005. Self-report surveys were given to 30,000 nine- to sixteen-year-olds from twenty-four ‘high deprivation/high crime areas’ in England and Wales. Unsurprisingly there was not much offending at primary school but wrong-doing becoming quite normal as the kids grew older. Excluding underage drinking, smoking and truanting, 52 per cent of secondary school children admitted that they broke the law, mostly through vandalism, stealing and receiving stolen property, but there was an ominous trend. The proportion of so-called ‘looked after’ children who reported stealing (42 per cent) was nearly double that reported by those living with two birth parents (23 per cent); more fostered or care home children admitted attacking someone (21 per cent) compared with those living with two birth parents (12 per cent); and a much higher proportion of ‘looked after’ children reported carrying a knife to school (21 per cent) than children in other family types. There were also very high reports by ‘looked after’ children (32 per cent) of exclusion from their secondary schools. In fact, of the nine behaviour problems studied, the proportion of ‘looked after’ children admitting seven or more of them (15 per cent) was twice as high as children in any other family type. Again it was abandonment by both natural parents, not just one, that seemed to be the bigger problem. In any case the picture is swirling with subtexts. There were lots of other risk factors apart from broken homes: being mixed-race or Bangladeshi for attacking someone; being Irish for truanting; being white for underage drinking; being white or Caribbean rather than black African or Pakistani for drug-taking; being white or black rather than Asian for vandalism; and so on. And there’s another thing, something that should give Charles Murray pause for thought. He and his supporters think it would be a good idea to bring back stigma – to make it unfashionable and embarrassing to be born out of wedlock and brought up without a conventional mum and dad. There may be much in what they say. But this intriguing survey also, as an aside, found something that may be quite significant about why ‘looked after’ children tended to be more problematic as they grew older. When they were young they were bullied. In fact being ‘looked after’ was by far the biggest factor for being victimised at primary school (30 per cent), almost double the risk for black children (18 per cent), and more than twice as bad as average (13 per cent). Maybe such kids don’t have the social skills to avoid being picked on, and perhaps it is that lack of social skill that causes other problems later on. And maybe an officially endorsed atmosphere of greater stigma would make things worse.
But of even more concern to us should be boys and young men who are permanently excluded from school. This is a group which turns out to be highly vulnerable to violent crime and suicide. In fact, school exclusion is probably the best predictor of ending up in prison.
Colin Pritchard and Richard Williams, “Does Social Work Make a Difference? A Controlled Study of Former ‘Looked-After-Children’ and ‘Excluded-From-School’ Adolescents Now Men Aged 16–24 Subsequent Offences, Being Victims of Crime and Suicide”, Journal of Social Work, 2009, Vol. 9, No. 3, pp. 285–307.
Jessica Reyes, like Levitt and Donohue, reasoned that something had to account for the rise and fall of young offenders – and on her calculations the culprit was lead in petrol.
Jessica Wolpaw Reyes, ‘Environmental Policy as Social Policy? The Impact of Childhood Lead Exposure on Crime’, National Bureau of Economic Research, 2007.
… nor did the theory work for acquisitive offences – the thefts which had largely driven crime rates. If lead caused cognitive impairment like assaults and murders, how come it failed to correlate with all the other equally impulsive crimes? Nor was there compelling evidence that offenders, in prison for example, had higher lead levels in their blood than anyone else.
It has long been known that lead is a neurotoxin which accumulates in the body, and there is a link with poor cognitive development and attention deficit. Accordingly, from the 1970s most countries banned its use in paints, solders for food cans and plumbing, water services and finally petrol. Fine particles are breathed in and ingested with food, especially cereals that have grown on lead-contaminated soils. In Britain, sales of cars requiring leaded fuel declined through 1980s and lead in petrol was finally banned in 2000. UK samples showed blood lead levels fell in direct proportion to the amount of lead in gasoline, from 12.9 íg/dL in 1979 to 3.1 in 1995 (Valerie Thomas, Robert Socolow, James Fanelli and Thomas Spiro, ‘Effects of Reducing Lead in Gasoline: An Analysis of the International Experience’, Environmental Science & Technology, 1999, Vol. 33, No. 22, p. 3943). So there is a pattern of falling lead levels which preceded the fall in crime. However, correlation is not the same as cause, and a specific link with crime is hard to demonstrate. Given that the effects of lead are thought to be linear it is surprising there is no evidence of higher levels in known offenders than the general population. The association of bone lead and destructive behaviour in a small sample of boys was reported in a prestigious medical journal back in 1996 but met with scepticism in the same journal from Terrie Moffitt, the doyenne of behavioural scientists researching crime and adolescence, who questioned the methodology and thus the findings (Terrie Moffitt, ‘Measuring Children’s Antisocial Behaviours’, JAMA, 7 February 1996, Vol. 275, No. 5, pp. 403–4; see also p. 363 [http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=395806]).