Europe's Underclass

Europe's Underclass

Mini Teaser: The theories of Le Corbusier have much to answer for.

by Author(s): Cait Murphy

The theories of Le Corbusier have much to answer for. The once fashionable French architect believed in vertical cities that echoed the dehumanized life of the modern world: "We must create", he wrote, "the mass production spirit." In the city of his dreams, people would live in huge slabs of high-rise housing. To see how this has worked out in practice, take a twenty minute train ride from central Paris to the most complete embodiment of his ideas: La Courneuve, a vertical city par excellence. Some thirty years after its much ballyhooed construction as the best exemplar of modern urban life, the place is a mess. The high-rises are shabby, the limited park space ill-maintained. Most of the shops are boarded up, graffiti the only decoration. The train station is a fair walk away, and the bus service limited.

It is, in short, an excellent example of the problems of what France knows as la pŽriphŽrie. While America's blight tends to be concentrated in the core of its central cities, in Paris and other French cities the problem is generally in the inner ring of suburbs, most of them built, with the highest of hopes, from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. If ever one wants to see how good intentions can pave the road toward a kind of living purgatory, La Courneuve and its many architectural clones are prime exhibits.

That said, they are not as awful as, say, the urban hells of Chicago's Robert Taylor Homes, or vast swathes of Detroit, New York, St. Louis, Baltimore, Washington, and Los Angeles. For one thing, crack cocaine--the moral equivalent of a bomb on already fragile neighborhood infrastructures--has not hit Europe as hard as it has American cities. For another, guns and random violence are less common. In the 1995 French movie, La Haine (Hate), which had tout Paris shivering in horror, the central drama depicts how one young white Frenchman acquires a gun. In some of America's urban public schools, by contrast, metal detectors are as much standard equipment as desks. As well, all the people in La Courneuve have access to health care. And finally, although the rise of explicitly racist political parties like the National Front is troubling, and while non-white Europeans have worse social and economic profiles, race is less poisonous an issue in the discussion of urban blight. It is to some extent possible for white America to avoid inner cities and to consider them a black problem--"isolate, isolate", as Tom Wolfe put it in The Bonfire of the Vanities. The fact that most residents of the wilder French banlieues and their European equivalents are white, however, makes it difficult for the larger society to ignore them as "the other." Indeed, the white gun-toter's two best friends in La Haine are a North African and a black.

Which leads us to the question: Does Europe have something akin to the American underclass? The term itself is controversial. Many Americans object to it on the ground that it is stigmatizing and defines a group of citizens as a species apart. Nevertheless, the term has the virtue of recognition; we know what we mean when we use it. It means a small minority of people, perhaps 2 percent of the population, cut off from the economic and social mainstream with seemingly little chance of ever joining it--or seeing their children join it. Europeans refuse to adopt the "u" word. The consensus is that there is no underclass in Europe, just "social exclusion", "new poverty", "advanced urban marginalization", or a "fourth world." The European Union issues worthy papers and multi-point programs discussing the problem.

But semantics aside, the question remains. And the answer is that if European cities have been spared thus far from the most hideous effects of American-style blight, they are heading in that direction--and on a huge scale. There are two ways in which adults connect themselves to the larger society: through work and through family life. When both those links weaken, the result is isolation, alienation, and hopelessness; and when it comes to both jobs and family structures, Europe has cause for worry.


As to jobs, Europe has proved grossly unable to get its unemployed--and, increasingly, its never-employed--into work. The statistics are stark. Almost one in nine adults in Europe (defined as the fifteen members of the EU) is unemployed; many more are in training courses, have taken early retirement, or receive "disability" pay--all often thin disguises for unemployment. Only 60 percent of European adults of working age are actually employed, three percentage points lower than in 1991 and significantly less than the American rate of 72 percent. While many of the non-working adults are students and housewives, some portion of the twelve point difference is unemployment by another name. Overall, 4.5 million fewer Europeans were working at the end of 1996 than in 1991, even though the size of the labor force stayed roughly the same. All this is bad enough. Even worse is that average European youth unemployment (those under twenty-four who are not in school) is more than 20 percent, and the figure is twice that in Spain. More than half of all unemployed have been jobless for a year or more, 30 percent for more than two. This matters, for employers are not shy in saying that they would prefer not to interview, much less hire, the long-term unemployed. More than a third of those who are long-term unemployed have never worked.

By contrast, not only is America's unemployment rate half that of Europe, but only 11 percent of its unemployed have been jobless for more than a year. In both cases, however, the less educated workers are, the more likely they are to be unemployed. Those with the minimum education in Europe are twice as likely to be unemployed as the rest of the population. In France, for example, in 1994, 13.5 percent of workers with low levels of education were unemployed (in 1981, it was 5.4 percent), while only 5.9 percent of the highly educated were out of work (3 percent in 1984).

There are two other troubling aspects to Europe's employment situation. First, the unskilled--that is, those who are the most likely to be unemployed--are in no position to win most of the jobs that are being created or vacated. Second, most of these new jobs are in fields that historically have been more attractive to women. Indeed, women have accounted for all the growth of the labor force since 1975, according to the EU's "Employment in Europe" study; 70 percent of women are now in the labor force, the highest rate ever. Over the same period, employment rates for men have fallen. "Most disturbingly", the EU notes, "there is an increasing withdrawal from the labor market of men in the prime age group 25-49." And it is getting worse, as more men withdrew from the labor force during the 1990-95 period than in the previous five years. The reason is that the kinds of jobs that have been created are those that women are more likely to want: office work, health care, social work, retailing, and certain service industries. At the same time, jobs in agriculture and heavy industry--traditional men's work--continue to decline.

Why is this important? Because work is a crucial maturing experience for young men. There is no more volatile, or violent, section of human society than a pack of idle young males. In a neighborhood where most of the women do not work outside the home, the image is that of soccer moms or chatting matrons. In a neighborhood where most of the men do not work, the image is far more sinister, and rightly so. However much sexual egalitarians would have us believe that it doesn't much matter who earns the bacon and who cooks it, in real life it still does.

Families in Decline

Which brings us to family structures. Young women have shown themselves reluctant to marry men without jobs or prospects. That does not mean, however, that they will necessarily defer motherhood, which is a positive experience in itself, and also a way of finding social purpose. In addition to trends that have removed much of the stigma from bearing children out of wedlock, benefit systems make single motherhood not only possible but mostly devoid of economic penalty. Women can find it about as profitable--and a lot less trouble--to marry the state, perhaps supplemented by part-time work, as to wed a jobless man.

Here, too, the statistics are startling. Births to single women have risen to unprecedented levels in all of northern Europe--to more than a third of all births in Britain and France, to over half in Scandinavia, and to one-fifth in Germany. (The poorer, mostly Catholic southern tier is largely exempt from this trend, though, interestingly, Ireland is not.) And while the trend is now increasing at a lower rate, it has not stopped. It is true that in Scandinavia more than 90 percent of births are registered to both parents and in Britain about 75 percent. But the fact is that couple dissolution rates among unmarried parents are far higher than among married ones--three times as high in Sweden, for example. The upshot is that an increasing number of children spend part of their lives with just one parent, almost always the mother. This matters because single mothers are conspicuously less prosperous than their married counterparts, and their children less successful.

After a long intellectual tussle, America has finally agreed that this is so. Europe has not quite, with the possible exception of Britain. Tony Blair nailed the family values banner to the Labour Party's mast at the September 1997 party conference. Much of his audience, it must be said, was visibly unenthused. The commendable desire not to stigmatize children of single parents has made it difficult to discuss the phenomenon of lone parenthood as a social problem that is as serious in its way as unemployment or crime. Indeed, one member of an official EU study group on the family notes that researchers have gathered compelling evidence to this effect, but have had difficulty getting a hearing.

While illegitimacy is rising among all social classes, it is rising fastest and the state of fatherlessness is lasting longest the lower down the economic ladder one looks. Sue Slipman, former head of Britain's National Council for One Parent Families, an advocacy group, has noted that, "There are no more mothers than there have ever been in these communities; there are just fewer committed fathers." Among the least-skilled workers, she continues, "If men have little to bring to the family party and women continue to sustain the burden of parenting and breadwinning, [women] will go on questioning what is the point of a man."

Perhaps such men could stay home while their wives go off to work at the nursery school. That, too, seems unappealing. The EU has the great virtue of measuring everything, and its statistics show what any but a handful of women could tell them: that while men are doing more of the housework--and probably feel tremendously virtuous about deigning to help--they are still not doing anywhere near half of it. The tasks that Europeans think should mainly be carried out by the father are sport, money-earning, and punishment; those that should be done by the mother are dressing, changing diapers, and feeding. Not much New Age philosophy here. More than three-quarters of those surveyed (75 percent of women and 87 percent of men) believed it best if the mother stays home with a young child. And yet, more and more children are growing up in situations where it is impossible for any such division of labor to occur because there is no man about.

No European country has anything like America's teenage birth rates. Being born to a single teenage mother is the worst possible beginning for a child, and America laps the field in this sad statistic. American teens are almost twice as likely as British ones to have a baby, eight times as likely as French, German, and Spanish girls, and twelve times as likely as Dutch ones. Moreover, the child poverty rate in Europe is much lower than in America, due in part to more generous benefit systems. But no thoughtful person can look at social trends in Europe today and be sanguine.


The final devastating trend is that Europe's poor and jobless are increasingly inhabiting a place apart. In Britain, for example, the hugely successful policy of allowing tenants to buy their public housing--itself of generally superior quality to that of America--meant that many working people on good estates--one and a half million households--did so, while others moved out into the liberalized property market. More than two-thirds of Britons now own their own homes, compared to 57 percent in 1980. All this is to the good. But the unfortunate side effect is that public housing has become the residence of last resort.

Indeed, that has happened in part because of official policy, with some estates being effectively singled out for the homeless and destitute. These are commonly known as "sink estates", and everyone knows where they are. European societies have explicitly made the state the houser of last resort, and thus have fewer visible social failures than America, where housing assistance is a matter of luck, not entitlement. (Only a quarter of Americans who meet the eligibility requirements for housing subsidies get them.) Moreover, living in public housing does not carry the same stigma as it often does in America. The fact remains, however, that the social composition of public housing has changed dramatically. Well into the 1970s, a third of people in the upper 40 percent of the income distribution lived in Britain's council housing; now almost none of them do. Public housing is increasingly inhabited by single-parent families, the poor, the unemployed, the dependent, and the old. They are discernibly different from the rest of society.

This apartness is not unique to Britain. Pierre Bourdieu, a well-respected French social scientist, calls it "the translation of economic division into spatial division." In a report to the EU, Michael Wegener notes that residents of Griesheim "view their neighborhood as a ghetto--the Bronx in Frankfurt." Parts of suburban Paris are known as "little Chicagos"; German cities have neighborhoods known as Colditz (after a World War II prisoner-of-war camp), Gulag (self-explanatory), and Bantustan (a derogatory racial reference). In Amsterdam and The Hague as well, the poor and the marginal tend to have each other as neighbors and barely participate in dominant societal institutions such as the labor market, education, and recreational activities.

When working people move out and leave only the intermittently or casually employed poor, the effects ripple through a neighborhood in various and always negative ways. People don't like to admit coming from "bad" neighborhoods; doing so can make it more difficult to get a job, or even a date. Outsiders don't want to visit, taxis would rather not travel there, and the territorial stigma becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Those who can do so move out to avoid the taint, and the only families to move in are those who have no other place to go. Anne Power, who has written extensively about public housing in Europe, estimates that 5.5 million households in northern Europe are living in "unpopular and difficult to let" estates that are experiencing what we now commonly refer to as "ghetto trends."

Still, things could be worse. In the United States, the final degradation has been the collapse of public institutions and private commerce within the ghetto. Nicholas Lemann notes in The Promised Land, an influential 1991 book about the origins of the American underclass, that schools, police, and government agencies in the most troubled areas tend to "give off a feeling not of hope or progress but of containment--of not letting things get out of hand to the point where life outside the ghetto would be directly affected." Europe has avoided the worst of this deterioration. In Hamburg's Wilhelmsburg, for example, one of the poorest parts of the city, there are specialty shops and boutiques, banks, and grocery stores, even a travel agency and a Mormon church--the kinds of institutions that can't keep, or don't try to keep, a foothold in America's worst ghettos. The public phones work, and the three-story brick council flats look in good shape. Flower boxes and lawn ornaments add touches of individuality that many residents of American cities don't bother with any more, on the reasonable assumption that any such efforts would be vandalized or stolen. Wilhelmsburg does not feel scary.

Labor Markets

This is much to Europe's credit, and there is no doubt that America could learn from it a good deal about maintaining public civility, and indeed graciousness, in poor areas. But that does not mean that America's worst problems can never happen in Europe. There are things, too, that Europe can learn from America--chiefly about getting people into work. Indeed, in the Summer issue of this magazine, Steven Muller went so far as to argue that in Europe work is becoming a privilege and idleness a burden. Muller mostly blames technological advance for what he foresees as an inexorable increase in unemployment, but the idea that technology will displace humans has been a feature of economic thinking since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, when the Luddites smashed the power looms that threatened their hand-weaving jobs. The looms did take these men's jobs, but the absolute number of jobs, as technology has succeeded technology, has continually grown: fewer chimney sweeps and buggy whip manufacturers, more aerobics instructors and air conditioner repairmen. Even though the European job market has shrunk of late, there are still 10 million more Europeans in work now than in 1980, and almost 50 million more among the top seven industrialized nations--and this increase has come during a period of intense technological change.

The issue is not so much the quantity of work as the distribution of it. Jobs on the lower end of the skill ladder are disappearing faster than those further up and they are not being replaced. This is why unemployment is disproportionately a problem of the less educated. But Muller is wrong to assume that just because there is less low-skilled work being performed in Europe, there is no demand for it. There is a demand, but Europe has organized itself in ways that make it almost impossible for low-skilled people to work in the legal economy. European labor markets are structured essentially to pay the lower skilled to stay home; in America, they can still find something to do, some point of entry, and then work their way up. Policy decisions, not economic inevitabilities, account for America's higher rate of job creation and labor force participation--as well as its higher degree of income inequality.

In effect, Europe has created a two-tiered labor market. The insiders are those who have full-time, secure, well-paying jobs, or who are married to those who do. They are rewarded handsomely; one of America's most important social problems, that of the working poor, is not an issue in Europe. Through working, Europeans both contribute and have access to a wide range of benefits.

Those who are outside the labor market have a more difficult time than ever getting in, as the relentless rise in long-term unemployment proves. "Labour is too expensive", Bruno Bonduelle, chairman of a canning company in the city of Lille in northwestern France, told the Wall Street Journal in August. His company has cut its work force by four hundred people in the last seven years. Lille's metro system is sleek and modern--and has no drivers. The labor was considered too expensive. Even for the most diligent job seeker, Europe is a tough environment. High minimum wages, whether by statute or custom, mean the unemployed cannot price themselves into work; and high non-wage and firing costs give employers pause before taking on new workers in the first place, even when their businesses are growing--a phenomenon Europe knows as "jobless growth." These labor standards were enacted to protect workers and promote cooperation between labor and management, and they did so when everyone worked. They are a positive nuisance now, but are so deeply ingrained that they have become habit. When Renault announced in early 1997 that it would shut its Belgian plant, street protests demanded that the government erect higher barriers to firing. The European social model, the generosity of its provisions, also means that choosing not to work can be sensible. "There are really people who choose the welfare system", says Godfried Engbersen, a Dutch social scientist. "Some of our welfare systems put people in very passive positions. That's the policy dilemma." Europe's postwar social welfare model was based on full-time employment for all men, stable families, lots of children, stay-at-home mums, and not too many old folks; now that none of these holds true anymore, the systems are strained.

But instead of responding to the new realities, Europe is hanging onto the old structures with grim determination. Jacques Chirac's modest efforts to impose a degree of austerity on the French welfare state were stopped dead in their tracks in the May 1997 elections. Ig Mettal, Germany's largest trade union, called for a 32-hour work week at a time when the country was suffering from the worst unemployment since the pre-Hitler period. German employers are on track to invest almost $25 billion abroad this year. As Peter Blau of the Thyssen Group told the Financial Times, "It is most definitely a question of exporting jobs." Only Britain and to some extent the Netherlands have taken the plunge toward flexible labor markets. And while they are hardly free of the social problems discussed here, it is no coincidence that they have the lowest unemployment rates in Europe.

Is there anything wrong with this? After all, no one is starving in the Netherlands, or indeed in Europe. The awful want that used to be associated with poverty in earlier decades is all but gone. There are, however, consequences to the economic ostracism of a large minority of people. For one, such discouragement correlates strongly to both crime and broken homes, both of which exact costs on everyone. It is not possible to seal off people the way a troubling disease can be quarantined. More important is simply that no country can be at ease with itself if it casts a group of its citizens as permanent misfits. This does not mean that governments must necessarily become ever more intrusive; Europe in fact might be better served if the public stopped seeing the state as provider of last resort in every sphere. But giving up on a large number of citizens and their children--in effect, keeping them fed and watered as one would a collection of pets--is a deeply uncivilized thing to do. Mores that would allow that to happen reflect a society that would be terribly unpleasant for nearly everyone to live in.

For years, Europeans sniffed at America's frisky but "cruel" economy, where people change jobs and even careers with a verve that can appear chaotic. The Old World, one heard--and still hears--had opted for security and a more egalitarian ethic as opposed to the New World's bent toward opportunity and achievement. In its time, that was a defensible trade-off. It is no longer so: for what these days remains of Europe's security? The irony is a painful one. By making job creation prohibitively difficult, postwar Europe's well-meaning effort to create generous social benefits has laid the groundwork for the creation of a permanent underclass--the absence of which had heretofore been Europe's proudest, and most legitimate, counter-argument to the American economic model.

Essay Types: Essay