What’s the best term for the urban poor?

One of the issues that was raised with me by a number of people at the Reaching the Unreached conference and which has been raised in a comment on a previous post is this: Who are we talking about? What is the best term to describe them? I don’t the know the answer.

Twenty-five years ago Roy Joslin wrote a prophetic book on reaching the working class entitled Urban Harvest. He described the culture of the working class and how we might contextualize the gospel to this culture. It’s a great book and still very helpful. But the world has changed since then.

That older traditional working-class culture is still with us, but it’s decreasing. Some of the institutions that epitomized it are now in major decline: trade unions and working men’s clubs, for example. In its place we have a growing benefit culture, underclass, urban poor … What term should we use? Often people talk about reaching council estates or marginalised areas as if this means reaching traditional working-class people and no doubt in some areas this is true. But in many areas there is a very different culture.

‘Working-class’ (in the UK) and ‘blue-collar’ (in the US) is often used of non-professionals or non-graduates, often manual workers, usually hard-working, respectable, responsible, giving a high value to family. In certain trades they may also be high earners.

The ‘urban poor,’ ‘marginalized’ or ‘underclass’ typically refer to people from dysfunctional families, often with problems spanning generations. In the UK they are also shaped by the experience of living on state benefits – creating something of a long-term benefit culture.

Working-Class: tidy homes (a row of primulas in the front garden)
Benefit Culture: chaotic homes (a fridge in the front garden)

Working-Class: an orderly life (tea at 6.0pm)
Benefit Culture: a disorderly life (think about food when hungry)

Working-Class: communal (members of trade unions and working men’s clubs)
Benefit Culture: suspicious of institutions (not members of anything)

Working-Class: socially conservative
Benefit Culture: socially disconnected

Those from a benefit culture are typically disconnected from the wider society, but they show strong loyalty to one another. They will give there last £10 to someone who asks them irrespective of the consequences to themselves.

Traditional working-class people often despise the generational poor (often much more strongly that politically correct middle-class people). They more readily attach blame to the generational poor. It also means sometimes they deny being working-class because they associate this label with the generational poor they despise. Ruby Payne says: ‘Often the attitude in generational poverty is that society owes one a living. In situational poverty the attitude is often one of pride and a refusal to accept charity.’ (Ruby K. Payne, A Framework for Understanding Poverty purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US, AHA! Process, 2005, 29.)

Immigrant communities add further complexity to the picture. They may be poor, but may have cultural characteristics very different from the poor of other ethnic communities.

The ‘urban poor’ are not an homogeneous group. Social class is a moving target – it is constantly changing.

So there are some important differences between the traditional working-class and the new benefit culture. There are, though, many cultural characteristics in common that present a common challenge to evangelicals. The differences among them do not invalidate the value of considering their common cultural traits. The French are heterogeneous, but there is still value in missionaries to France thinking about contextualizing to French culture. In the same way, the urban poor are heterogeneous, but there is still value in missionaries among the urban poor thinking about contextualizing to the culture of the urban poor.

But my question is this: What term should we use to describe the urban poor, particularly those belonging to what I’ve called the benefit culture? I want a term that is descriptive without being pejorative or which avoids the dangers of labelling people. One test I apply is, Would the people I know from this background own the term? Would they be happy to describe themselves in this way?

I’ve tended to use the term ‘urban poor’ to include both the poorer sections of the traditional working-class and those who belong to the benefit culture because it is less pejorative than other terms (whether formal like ‘the marginalised’, ‘socially excluded’, ‘underclass’ or informal like ‘street’, ‘scally’, ‘chav’). (I recognise there are poor people in rural areas, but I suspect their culture is different in some significant ways.) Another complication is that these kind of terms often do not translate well across the Atlantic.

So what do you think? What term should we use?

By the way, I think Ruby Payne’s book, A Framework for Understanding Poverty (cited above) is the best book I’ve come across for understanding the culture of the urban poor. Payne is an educationalist so that’s the perspective from which it’s written (I’ve no idea whether she is a Christian or not) and it’s written from an US perspective so there are differences with the UK scene. But it’s still my top recommendation. purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US

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11 thoughts on “What’s the best term for the urban poor?

  1. Thanks for this link Tim… A friend and I who run a Podcast from my site, recently interviewed a fella who is part of a drop-in dinner mission in Sydney, Australia. One of the things I was struck with during the conversation was this very issue – what does ‘the poor’ mean in different contexts! Thanks for this book link – really appreciated it.

    In Christ,
    Mark Earngey

  2. Tim,

    i) I wonder if here you have just revisited the older respectable working class vs criminal class distinctions present in the majority
    discussions of the poor since the middle ages.

    the poor law had the deserving and undeserving poor

    marx had the workers and the lumpenproletariet


    we now have the working class and the benefit culture

    these distinctions are very contested and loaded so I wonder if they move us any further

    as you have said class is so complicated now – I wonder if the old working class and middle class terms need to be so qualified they are unhelpful

    ii) I also wonder the helpfulness of the phrase ‘poor’ in post welfare Britain. Firstly whether many people would own up to being it and secondly whether it actually is that meaningful when compared to the situation in other countries. and I am not for one second saying there is not disadvantage, discrimmination, people with alot less money than others, but poverty … I’m not so sure.

    iii) When you visit any neighbourhood in the UK, you will invariablely find a mix of people. For example I would argue there are no ghettos based on colour here, and if I can use your benefit vs working class distinction for a minute – every ‘working class’ neighbourhood has a mix of both sorts of people.

    iv) Given iii) personally I wonder if we just need to be indiscrimminate in our evangelism and discipling in conservative evangelicalism in the UK.

    Tim Keller has been here recently telling us how difficult cross class churches are – and hes right (although he may have just given licence to planting intentionally ‘working class churches’ with middle class leaderships – which to me doesn’t seem very gospel – a bit too HUP …), but I just wonder if we all just divided up the nation on a parish basis and churches took responsibility for those in their parish whoever they are (prayed for them, did what they could to reach them and persisted whatever the fruit, and then practised a NT church hospitality etc culture), would we not be better off (I know I’m dreaming – transfer growth and student outreach are far more appealing – as Melvin pointed out to us).

    iv) so to end up I don’t know how to refer to people en masse … i’m not even sure it is even that helpful. May be it is best to refer to people in terms of their area, given the diversity and as you have said that is before we even consider ethnicity?


    PS this is a good conversation to have – has it been had so widely since the 1800s ? although I do think on the whole we have got worse in the last 30 yrs .. ie more class bias

  3. Thanks Tim for starting this discussion, and thanks Colin for your interesting comments. This is a good discussion to have, but I would urge caution before we proceed:

    I grew up in the so called “underclass” although I didn’t know that until I read a Christian book on urban ministry. The first time I heard the word ‘chav’ out loud was from a Christian who had been to a ‘chav’ party who then described how she dressed up as a pregnant single mum. The first time I heard the idea that people in the benefit culture have disorderly lives and chaotic homes was today when someone pointed me to your blog. No offense meant ;)

    My experience of growing up in the ‘underclass’ seems so different to what I often hear Christians say about us. I think that a lot of ‘helpful generalisations’, are not generalisations at all, but merely minority cases that stand out and are then treated as the norm.

    Here are my suggestions for how we can be cautious in this matter::

    1) We can write and talk as if the people we are talking about are sitting in the same room, or at least they’re gonna read it later on the internet.

    2) We can make sure our general statements are backed by reliable evidence.

    3) We can seek more input from the people we are writing about, and see what they have to say.

  4. Hi Duncan

    Thanks for your comments. Your points are all well taken. That’s why I’m keen for a word that the people concerned would own for themselves. How would you have described yourself socially when you were growing up? What term would people in your area now use? I find people often use colloquial terms that are often quite localized.


  5. This is a good discussion on an often a neglected group in society as regards evangelism.We all understand Upper, middle and lower class from the John Cleese sketch with Ronnie Corbett and Ronnie Barker :’I know my place'( see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w0DUsGSMwZY ). There is however a problem of finding a term other than ‘underclass’ which I feel is quite good from a sociological point of view. However it could still be a rather insulting for those whom it describes – but is there any better.

    The Youth Outreach I lead aims at building up relationships with unchurched working class teenagers who area mix of working class and those some would describe as ‘slow learners’. Some of these people have been badly abused while young children (sexually and physicaly) and really could not hope to find full time paid employment especially in todays economic climate. They can however do voluntary work which they are have begun since becoming Christians -apart from that they survive on benefits. It is not that they do not want to work, rather they would not be able to hold down a job! Their future is not necessarily gloomy as they can still get married, have children and get a house because of the very god welfare system in the UK.

    Changing the subject slightly do you know of any research down on wrking class communities as regards evangelism and mission?

  6. Thanks Tim,

    a) The term “working class”
    When I grew up we called ourselves working class. On our estate (of over 13,000 people) those who work and those who live on benefits intermingle without noticeable distinctions. I think we probably all considered ourselves as working class, whether we were on benefits or not, we all shared the same working class culture together on our estate.

    I think one problem is that whereas we would call ourselves “working class”, the academy etc. has a different definition to us. This means that on my estate I can say “working class” and it means one thing to us, but if I went to a conference, it would mean something else.

    I’ve written about some other problems with using class categories in this post on my blog: http://duncanf.blogspot.com/2009/01/council-estate-christians-12-problems.html

    b) The term “poor”
    As a child, I would have been happy with being labelled ‘poor’, there were times when my Mum worried about being able to feed me or buy me shoes. God thankfully always provided for us. However the benefit system is quite different these days. I don’t see that level of poverty anymore, unless someone has a drug addiction (and I suppose failed asylum seekers could be there as well).

    So these days I personally wouldn’t use the term poor, but I might say “less wealthy” or “disadvantaged” or “deprived”. However all of these terms can play into ungodly mindsets that people may have. For example, “less wealthy” implies my purpose in life is to be wealthy; “disadvantaged” and “deprived” can promote a victim mentality. In our church, I encourage people to see themselves as some of the richest people in the world. This way, we move away from victim mentality, and instead look at how we can bless others with what God has blessed us with.

    c) With regards to the term “underclass”:
    I see three main problems with it:
    1) People who are supposed to be part of the “underclass” don’t use this term.
    2) It seems to imply a totally different culture to those who have jobs, whereas on my estate there is not the case.
    3) Most importantly, the word “under” implies a lack of value. Genesis teaches us that our value comes from being created by God in his image, and originally being a good creation. The term “underclass” promotes a value system based on status as perceived by other classes.

    d) With regards to the term “slow learners”:
    You find slow learners in every segment of society.

    e) With regards to the word “urban”:
    I like it a lot, however it also been used as a replacement for black culture. This means that some people find it offensive (such as the New Nation newspaper), and others would have difficulty applying it to predominantly white estates up north. It has also been used by Tim Keller in a different way.

    f) With regards to the term “Inner city”:
    I like this term, I identified with it growing up. However it obviously suggests the people live in the geographical middle of the city. I think that inner city culture is shared by many people who do not live in the middle of the city. Of all the different terms, “inner city culture” is one of my favourites.

    g) With regards to the term “Council Estate Culture”:
    This is the best term for me, but then again, I’m predominantly working on council estates. I appreciate that it doesn’t work for everyone. Then again, I don’t know if (along with Colin) we really need to find a term here.

  7. Hi Andrew,
    Praise God for your outreach.
    Regarding research:
    I’ve written about this a bit on my blog, under the section: council estates.
    Our church website also has some videos of outreach we have done on our estate http://www.newlifelondon.com
    I’ve also written a paper on South London youth gangs, if you’re interested I’ll send it to you.
    God Bless

  8. Hi Duncan,
    From looking at your blog I was very impressed with your work but had no email to contact you or comment on your blog. For myself I have a heart for the the working class as my father was a shipyard man all of his working life and feel affinity with them having lived in a housing estate and gone to a secondary school for six years before doing A levels at a local grammar school.I have since, after working in the Bank for twenty years,done a Masters degree in Evangelism studies at Cliff College which was part of Sheffield Uni (now Manchester uni),Tim was a lecturer for one of the modules! If you haven’t done one you might like to consider doing a Masters there basing it on your work on the Council estate.By the way I was impressed with your critique of the ‘working class’ as well as your passion for them- few have it! I would be interested in reading your paper on the youth gangs and will read your posts under Council estates. For me the working class are the forgotten people of the church as well as the asylum seekers who I believe are a gift to the church if we could only see it.

    Peace and grace


  9. Geographical labels:

    My wife pointed out to me that I tend to prefer geographical labels. For example I will tend to talk about council estates or deprived areas or disadvantaged areas, rather than “deprived people”. I’m not trying to split hairs here, but I think its an important point if your goal is to find out how to contextualize the gospel.

    I think the advantages of a geographical approach are that it recognizes: 1) the variety of people living in any one area, 2) the fluidity of society, 3) the fact that people are people.

    1) The Variety of people living in one area:
    There can be a mixture of people within these geographical areas, but usually an overall culture that everyone plays a part in. Some will live on benefits, some will have jobs, some will go to university, some will deal drugs. You could even have a family in one house made up of people in each one of these situations. A local church hopefully will be trying to reach out to all of these people.

    2) The fluidity of society. People can move between living on benefits and having jobs, to going to university, to then going back to benefits. No matter what they are doing, they are playing a part in the culture of their area. A church will hopefully reach out to a person in their area no matter what they are doing. One of the problems with Government youth work approaches (I used to be a youth worker) is that it targets the most at risk youths, but when they stop being at risk, they are then ignored. Hopefully churches won’t do the same.

    3) People are people. There is a danger of thinking that people living on benefits have a particular learning style etc., as if there was a benefit culture gene. People used to erroneously think this way about black people. It bothers me that a lot of people think this way about people living in council estates. This thinking could really hinder appropriate gospel contextualization.

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