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Poverty and the Welfare State

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 1989 words Published: 11th May 2017

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Poverty and the Welfare State.

Question 1 – Describe critically Murray’s analysis of the underclass. How does the population in the USA characterized by his use of this term differ from that in Britain.

Question 2 – In an essay of no more than 1000 words, outline and critically evaluate the view that the Welfare State tends to create more poverty than it has the ability to solve. your essay must include examples of state policies as well as consider the different ideologies of welfare in Britain

Question 1.

Murray’s articles in the Times magazine in 1989 which outlined his thesis concerning the emergence of an ‘underclass’ in the UK similar to the one he had already identified in the US has been one of the more controversial texts in social policy recently (Murray, 1989, 1990). Murray’s central thesis is that the welfare state through the provision of benefits to unmarried mothers and the cessation of those benefits should these women marry has the effect of removing fatherhood and the influence thereof a father figure from the lives of these children (Murray, 1989). They in turn become dependent upon welfare and so a ‘class’ of people is formed outside of the norms of wage earning society dependent wholly on the state for support (Murray, 1989). Before we discuss some of the criticisms of this view it is worth noting the peculiarities and differences between Murray’s thesis as it relates to the US and the UK.

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In the first instance Murray’s work in the UK is much less racialised than his identification of the population in the US (Murray, 1984). In the case of the US Murray’s thesis and identification of the population comprising the majority of the underclass has been that it is a Black population. Murray then identified single black mothers as forming the core of the underclass. While this was a feature certainly still of his analysis of the British underclass it was not as strikingly so as his British version however the later versions of his thesis on the UK underclass also took on these racial overtones, (Murray, 1994).

Murray can be criticized on any number of grounds but perhaps some of the most devastating criticisms can be found when we consider research which is actually undertaken on those who constitute the ‘underclass’ rather than abstract theorizing about the underclass which denotes much of the vague definitions of what the underclass is meant to be (Alcock 1997). In this regard recent work by Edwards and Duncan (1997) for example has demonstrated the degree to which the stereotypes of the composition of the underclass do not match the realities of the lives involved. In their study of single women with children and their uptake of paid work they found that black single mothers living in positively regarded underclass areas (inner city areas of London for example) were more likely to seek work and to regard working themselves as being beneficial for their children (Edwards and Duncan, 1997:33). This was in contrast to single mothers from less predominantly underclass areas that held traditional views about rearing their children. These views emphasised the importance of caring for their children through being at home with them rather than outside the home in employment. Consequently the members of this group were much less likely to have work or to seek work or see work as a good. Thus the image of black single mothers creating an underclass through their rejection of a work ethic would seem to be unfounded.

Thus even in this small instance fatal flaws in Murray’s thesis can be identified, ultimately it can be said that the very vagueness of the definitions of what constitutes the underclass in the literature can it be argued be seen to be reflective of the fact that an identifiable object such as the underclass is impossible to define and serves merely as a critique of welfare arrangements and a moral attack on the nature of those who are marginalized by society.

Question 2.

With the collapse of communist states across the world in the 1980s a major perceived competitor to the market economy was removed with some like Fukuyama proclaiming it to be the ‘end of history’ and the triumphant victory of liberalism (Fukuyama, 1992). In the UK as in other European countries of course the welfare state has mediated against the ‘evils’ of capitalism as set out by Beveridge for some time, serving as Marxists had argued as a bribe of the working class and ensuring the legitimization and continuation of the welfare state (Mishra, 1990). It is not surprising then with all the past attacks on the nature of the welfare state to note that with the ‘end of history’ there has come a renewed assault on the welfare state in the UK.

Criticisms of the welfare state have come from both the left and the right but also crucially from the middle way of social democratic viewpoints. Almost consistent research has demonstrated the failure of the welfare state in reducing relative levels of poverty; in fact the UK today has a divide between rich and poor which is increasing quicker than at any other time in the history of the welfare state (Hills and Stewart, 2005). Thus it has become an almost consistent feature of debate that the welfare state has failed but the reasons given for this failure are completely oppositional. The two most prominent sources of these reasons have been neo-liberalists and social democratic parties.

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For neo-liberalists the ‘evils’ of the welfare state far outweigh the ‘evils’ of the free market so in discussing the view that the welfare state creates poverty it is worth recounting their views on the failings of the welfare state. At the core of many of the arguments thus against the welfare state are notions of desert. Desert is seen as a principle of morals and thus the failings of the welfare state in this respect is a moral failure which in turn leads to the moral turpitude of those the welfare state attempts to help (Lavalette and Pratt, 1997). This moral attack on the poor and the perceived institutions which has lead to their poverty is of course nothing new (Thane, 1992). Since the Poor Law state welfare arrangements have been criticized for the creation of a mentality which is seen to encourage indolence and decrease motivation towards self-sufficiency.

The reliance on welfare thus leads to unwillingness to seek work. This in turn has the effect of leading to increased taxation to support those unwilling to work. This then in turn leads to increased difficulties for employers in terms of paying higher salaries to counter higher taxation and so on into a vicious cycle of dependency (Hayek, 1990). Such a trend it is argues lay at the heart of the Oil Crises and the subsequent retrenchment of the welfare state in the UK and elsewhere.

Thus for the neo-liberal critique it is the totality of the welfare state which not only fails in reducing poverty but also serves to in fact create more. It does this both in a structural sense by hindering the effective operation of the market but also by creating in those who are recipients of welfare a mentality which causes them to retreat from the fundamental basics of economic life in seeking employment. Thus for neo-liberals measures such as Income Maintenance support schemes serve to create a duality of factors leading to the increase of poverty. Reform of the welfare state for neo-liberalists must be done so that only the bare minimum of services are required for those who are truly in need, such as the young, aged or infirm, (Fitzpatrick, 2001).

Amidst these criticisms the welfare state in the UK has undergone revisions also from its social collectivist roots. This may be surprising but we can view this a response to critiques of the welfare state from both left and right and hence they’re emerged consequently an articulation of a ‘Third Way’, (Giddens, 1994). This ‘Third Way’ was to be a radical re-conceptualisation of the basis and functions of the welfare state. As such then it can be seen that New Labour in particular has followed in the footsteps of Thatcher towards reforming the welfare state. But how effective have these reforms been and what is their basis?

Perhaps the most potent of these transformations has been in a shift away from the universalism of the early welfare state to a new selectivitist philosophy. Selectivism entails the targeting of benefits through such measures as means-testing and other income threshold schemes so as that ideally those that need it the most benefit from the specified arrangement (Lowe, 2005). If anything their effect on the poorest has been marginal as these people are already in receipt of benefits and the introduction of means tests has had little impacts. Instead a stealth reform of the welfare state has occurred and those who were on the margins, previously covered by the benefit are now excluded on the basis of their income being over thresholds, even if this is just marginal, (Esping-Anderson, 2002).

Thus we can argue that this selectivist based reform of the welfare state has worsened life for many by removing the safety net for all that existed previously under a universalist system. What this means in other words is that the Third Way of Labour has in actuality enhanced and widened the gaps between rich and poor and made the effects of poverty worse their reforms in favour of making the welfare state more effective. The pace and scale of the gap and its widening between rich and poor can be considered in this light. Indeed this notion of effectiveness found in much of social policy discourse can often be seen as simply cost-cutting exercises. The effects of which are leading to a situation where it is arguable that we have now seen neo-liberalism by the back door with major consequences for UK policy treatment of both poverty itself and those living in poverty.


  • Alcock, P. (1997); Understanding Poverty, Palgrave, Basingstoke UK
  • Edwards, R. and Duncan S. (1997); ‘Supporting the Family: Lone Mothers, Paid Work and the Underclass Debate’; Critical Social Policy, Vol.7 No. 4
  • Esping-Anderson, G. (2002); Why We Need a New Welfare State, Oxford University Press, Oxford UK
  • Fitzpatrick, T. (2001); Welfare Theory: An Introduction, Palgrave, Basingstoke UK
  • Fukuyama, F. (1992); The End of History and the Last Man, Penguin, New York US
  • Giddens, A. (1994); Beyond Left and Right: The Future of Radical Politics, Stanford University Press, California US
  • Hayek, F.A.V. (1990); Economic Freedom, Blackwell, Oxford UK
  • Hills, J. and Stewart, K. (2005); A More Equal Society, Policy Press, Bristol UK
  • Lavalette, M. and Pratt, A. (1997); Social Policy: A Theoretical and Conceptual Introduction, Sage, London UK
  • Lowe, R. (2005); The Welfare State in Britain since 1945, Palgrave, Basingstoke UK
  • Mishra, R. (1990); The Welfare State in Capitalist Society, Harvester Wheatsheaf, New York US
  • Murray, C. (1984); Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950-1980, Basic Books, New York
  • Murray, C. (1989); ‘Underclass’; Sunday Times Magazine, 26th November
  • Murray, C. (1990), The Emerging British Underclass, IEA, London UK
  • Murray, C. (1994); ‘Underclass: The Crisis Deepens’; The Sunday Times, 29th May
  • Thane, P. (1982); The Foundations of the Welfare State, Longman, London UK


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