Charles Murray and the Underclass: The Developing Debate

Ruth Lister, ed., IEA Health and Welfare Unit in association with The Sunday Times London, 1996.


IN 1989 Charles Murray visited Britain in search of the ‘underclass’, courtesy of The Sunday Times. Four years later he returned to warn that the crisis of the ‘underclass’ was deepening. The two essays which Murray wrote are brought together here, in one volume, together with a number of critical commentaries and a rejoinder from Murray to some of them. Whereas Murray’s first essay discusses the concept of an ‘underclass’ in fairly general terms, relating it to trends in ‘illegitimacy’, crime and unemployment, the second is primarily preoccupied with ‘illegitimacy’, marriage and the state of the British family. The commentaries by Joan Brown, Miriam David and Sue Slipman are unequivocally critical of Murray’s interpretation of family trends; Melanie Phillips (p. 157), shares Murray’s concern about the ‘collapse of the family’ but disputes his analysis of the causes and his policy prescriptions. The commentaries by Alan Walker, Nicholas Deakin and Pete Alcock provide a more broadbased critique of Murray’s conceptualisation of an ‘underclass’ whilst Frank Field, who himself uses the term, provides a different interpretation of its nature to that of Murray. A new appendix is provided by Alan Buckingham who both updates and supplements Murray’s data and analysis.

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