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Do South Africa's Unemployed Constitute an Underclass?

Year: 2003
Working paper number: 032
Author: Seekings, Jeremy
Unit: SSU

High rates of long-term unemployment pose difficulties for the mapping of the class structure. In South Africa, the high rate of long-term unemployment raises the question of whether or not the unemployed constitute a separate class or underclass. An underclass should only be distinguished if it has some theoretical foundation (i.e. the members of this class share some systematic disadvantage) and empirical consequence (i.e. that membership of this class is associated with experiences or attitudes that differ from those associated with membership of other classes). In South Africa, evidence from the mid-1990s suggests that, at the end of the apartheid era, one section of the unemployed suffered systematic disadvantage in terms of access to employment. Given that people get jobs in South Africa primarily through friends and family, people without such social capital are relegated to an especially disadvantaged position in the labour market and society in general. Some but not all of the unemployed can be located within an underclass defined in terms of acute disadvantage. The limited evidence available suggests that these unemployed people and their dependants constitute an 'underclass', experiencing more acute poverty, worse living conditions and less satisfaction with their lives than the members of other classes (including other unemployed people who do not fall into the underclass).

Publication file: wp32.pdf