In drawing on the concept of social exclusion, New Labour has been keen to distance itself from the longer-term 'underclass' discourse. At the same time, phrases such as 'cycle of deprivation' and 'problem families' are used with little sense of their earlier history. This article examines Sir Keith Joseph's theory of the 'cycle of deprivation' with regard to the longer-term history of the idea of an underclass. It argues that the cycle of deprivation can be seen as a chronological stepping-stone between related ideas. Nevertheless there are also important differences between the problem family, cycle of deprivation, and underclass formulations.