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Wednesday, 28 August, 2002, 14:26 GMT 15:26 UK
Underclass 'is a myth'
A family on the Lincoln Green estate in Leeds
People do not have to remain poor, the report argues
Politicians are wrong to talk about a permanent "underclass" in society, according to a report by a left-wing think tank.


Much poverty is thankfully temporary but there are some people who are persistently poor

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Poverty is a risk which affects everyone not just an excluded minority, Catalyst argues in a pamphlet published on Wednesday.

The report's author, professor Paul Spicker, also claims the government wildly exaggerates benefit fraud in order to demonise groups such as the long-term unemployed and teenage mothers.

He calls for a return the idea of the welfare state as a "safety net" for all citizens, rather than a means of dealing with a mythical "underclass".

'Temporary' poverty

Right wing commentators have seized on Professor Spicker's thesis as a "demolition" of Labour's social policy.

But his argument has been rubbished by charities working with poor people.

Graham Brown, director of End Child Poverty told BBC Radio 4's The World at One all the evidence showed "families who grew up poor are more likely to have children who will be poor themselves."

But Professor Spicker was adamant that "there may be such people but it is very difficult for us to work out who they are - and the circumstances are so rare that it is probably fair to say it is false."

People moved in and out of poverty all the time, through marriage or work, which meant "we can not pick out an underclass over an extended period of time," Professor Spicker argued.

And this needed to be reflected in government policy, which should move away from targeting "problematic" social groups towards an "infrastructure of support services" for everyone.

'Understanding' poverty

Junior work and pensions minister Malcolm Wicks agreed the term "underclass" was "sociologically suspect".

But he rejected out of hand Professor Spicker's theory that hardly anyone was poor throughout their entire life.

"Much poverty is thankfully temporary but there are some people who are persistently poor.

"We have figures for the late '90s that show one in seven children live in families who have been poor for three out of the last four years.

"We need to understand that kind of poverty and enable people to get out of poverty."

'Fraud is real problem'

He also denied Professor Spicker's claim that the government exaggerated benefit fraud.

"I wish it was the case that fraud was an imaginary concept," he told the World at One.

"But the reality is there is far too much fraud in the system and we are determined to ensure we spend our money on social security honestly."

The Catalyst report comes as research by Shelter suggested one in six homeless people have a university degree.

The charity warned that high rates of divorce and relationship breakdown are contributing to a "hidden underclass" of up to 400,000 people without a permanent address.

Welfare dependency

The term "underclass" first gained popularity on the US right in the 1980s to describe people cut off from society by their poverty, race or drug problems.

It was picked up by New Labour in the mid-1990s, when a "social exclusion" unit was set up under then Social Security Secretary Harriet Harman.

Policies such as the New Deal were designed to target the five million "workless" households and break the "cycle" of welfare dependency.

But the area has been the subject of furious political debate, with some Conservatives refusing to recognise the existence of an underclass.

Some right wing commentators claim self-reliance rather than state help is the answer to poverty.

Catalyst was set up in 1998 to promote new, practical policies directed to the redistribution of power wealth and opportunity.

It is chaired by Labour's former deputy leader Lord Hattersley.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Report author Professor Paul Spicker
"We need a general infrastructure of support and services"
Department for Work and Pension's Malcolm Wicks
"We need to enable people to have opportunities of getting out of poverty"
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27 Aug 02 | Politics
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