The Rise and Fall of the 'Underclass': An Exploration of Ideology and the Legal Arena

31 Pages Posted: 20 Oct 2010

See all articles by David Ray Papke

David Ray Papke

Marquette University - Law School

Date Written: October 18, 2010


This article explores the rise and fall of the "underclass" as an ideological construct between roughly 1980 and the present. The emergent understanding of the 10-12% of the population living in impoverished center-cities as an "underclass" carried with it a pronounced sympathy for the urban poor and also a preference for welfare and job programs that could aid them. Not surprisingly, the overall ideological construct made its presence felt in the legal arena, a discursive setting in which the organizational force of ideology is especially evident. In particular, some courts attempted to stop exclusionary zoning, a practice especially common in new, outlying suburbs. As the twentieth century drew to a close, meanwhile, attention to the "underclass" declined precipitously, and notions of an "underclass" virtually vanished from policy-making, political discourse, and the legal arena. The courts concomitantly lost interest in condemning exclusionary zoning, and the urban poor were denied a potentially valuable conceptualization which might have contributed to their political self-awareness and strengthened demands for an end to their debilitating oppression.

Keywords: underclass, ideology, urban poor

Suggested Citation

Papke, David Ray, The Rise and Fall of the 'Underclass': An Exploration of Ideology and the Legal Arena (October 18, 2010). Marquette Law School Legal Studies Paper No. 10-40. Available at SSRN: or

David Ray Papke (Contact Author)

Marquette University - Law School ( email )

Eckstein Hall
P.O. Box 1881
Milwaukee, WI 53201
United States

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