The nomenclature of the undeserving poor : an enduring history of marginalization

Murphy, Tony (2015). The nomenclature of the undeserving poor : an enduring history of marginalization. Journal on European History of Law, 6(1) pp. 103–108.


Since the formulation of the Poor Law system in Britain, elements of the poor have been caricatured through the creation of labels which have been used to signify the perceived troublesome nature of some of the neediest in society. In a contemporary sense, the term 'underclass' is often used as a byword for the problem poor, yet such a discourse has its origins in earlier accounts of the poor. Particularly since the nineteenth century Poor Law revisions, the process of identifying groups based on their burden to society, the threat they pose to social order, and even the possibility for them to infect the nation's gene pool, has been highly notable and indeed recurrent. Demands for intervention have followed. Such intervention has transcended individual policy domains, where criminal justice mechanisms have operated alongside welfare reforms, and indeed health and education policies, in the pursuit of dealing with such problem populations or undeserving poor. The origins of the various labels applied to the underserving poor have been deeply rooted in political and cultural discourses, often related to media and policy practices, and these processes have served to mutually reinforce one another. By charting the emergence of the labels applied to the poor, their wider context and the discourses they reflect, this paper demonstrates the enduring desire within British society to marginalise elements of the most needy, and thus, how such processes are reflected in more recent discourses of the poor.

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