The long‐term unemployed, informal economic activity and the ‘underclass’ in Belfast: rejecting or reinstating the work ethic


The notion of an ‘underclass’ existing outside the realm of mainstream society continues to hold sway among journalists and policy‐makers. While there are many new contenders for inclusion among the underclass, one of the most enduring group of participants is the long‐term unemployed. Work‐shy individuals, seemingly content to live on welfare benefits, are regarded as placing themselves outside the boundaries of mainstream economic and social life and passing a host of negative characteristics on to their children. The possibility that some of this group might defraud the welfare benefit system through working while claiming benefits adds further weight to negative images about the characteristics of ‘underclass’ members. The aim of this paper is to challenge some of these common assumptions by examining the ways in which unemployed people in an economically depressed locality in West Belfast relied on informal economic activity to help meet their material needs. Such activity has implications for the underclass debate because, rather than demonstrating commitment to some alternative set of values, informal economic activity drew participants into the wider economy and demonstrated adherence to mainstream values. Moreover, often the debate on social security abuse focuses on the supply side of the issue and is remarkably silent about the demand side of the equation. ‘Doing‐the‐double’ (working while claiming benefits) was not simply an individual response to unemployment and inadequate welfare benefits but was linked to changes in the labour needs of employers in the wider economy.