The motivation for distinguishing between the deserving and the undeserving poor is familiar to many who’ve been approached by a homeless person for a handout. Will we give without condition? Will we draw a line at those who are visibly intoxicated, reasoning that these supplicants are inviting their own ruin? Will we brush off the request and opt instead to make a contribution to the local shelter? Even after we’ve responded in some way, will we feel we’ve done the right thing? Perhaps our rationalizations will seem a little cold, a little too far removed from what might otherwise have been a simple human response to a simple human need.
The distinctions we sometimes make between the deserving and the undeserving poor have a revealing history. The first American colonies modeled their poor laws on Elizabethan systems of relief for the needy, where the primary division was between neighbors and strangers. Your responsibility to those who fell on hard times extended to family members and neighbors. If evil befell a sojourner, he was sent to his community of origin where, it was assumed, he would receive assistance. Another distinction divided your struggling neighbors into two classes: the truly impotent and the poor who were able-bodied, believed capable of at least some kind of work.
This latter category was problematic for early policymakers. Just as an acorn could, by slow degrees, transform into an oak, so could the category of the truly impotent shift through multiple shades of difference into the category of rogues attempting to game the system. The imperative for drawing clear lines increased as we moved from helping the poor to managing them.
Other challenges were afoot. In the early days of our republic, there were many poor who struggled privately with their need as a kind of unavoidable evil. The community’s “paupers,” by contrast, received some kind of public assistance, and it wasn’t long before pauperism became associated in the public mind with moral degradation. According to Michael Katz:
The redefinition of poverty as a moral condition accompanied the transition to capitalism and democracy in early nineteenth-century America. It served to justify mean-spirited treatment of the poor, which in turn checked expenses for poor relief and provided a powerful incentive to work. In this way the moral definition of poverty helped ensure the supply of cheap labor in a market economy increasingly based on unbound wage labor. The moral redefinition of poverty followed also from the identification of market success with divine favor and personal worth. …
Persistent and increasing misery did not soften the moral definition of poverty. Neither did the evidence available through early surveys or the records of institutions and administrative agencies, which showed poverty and dependence as complex products of social and economic circumstances usually beyond individual control.*
Over time the distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor became deeply embedded in American culture, supported by Calvinist arguments in the antebellum period, by Darwinist arguments after the Civil War, and by the proponents of eugenics in the early twentieth century. Within the very short span of my own memory, the undeserving poor have broken into the public consciousness as the “underclass,” as “welfare queens,” and, most recently, as Mitt Romney’s “47 percent.”
The labels have changed. What have remained remarkably constant are the myths that cloud our understanding of poverty. In an age when information is so freely available, when we stand to benefit from decades of excellent scholarship, we continue to misapprehend the structural and cultural causes of poverty. We conflate structural arguments with radical denials of human agency.
There are other lessons for us in the story of the undeserving poor. Some of these have to do with the question of who defines what constitutes an appropriate locus of philanthropic intervention.
In the same manner that elites reserve for themselves the privilege of drawing lines between the deserving and the undeserving poor, so too do their judgments determine what constitutes a “social problem” worthy of charitable investment. It will be a rare community that wrestles with the distinction between the deserving and undeserving wealthy, or that launches a five-year philanthropic program to increase the elite’s feelings of solidarity with their less fortunate neighbors. More often than not, philanthropy will be directed at fixing the poor, deserving or otherwise.
The homeless person asking for spare change intrudes on more than our physical space. He brings before our eyes the dictates of our faith traditions, our responsibility to model good behavior for our children, our desire to act with decency. At the same time, he surfaces our doubts about his bona fides, and here we are left without a clear script, reproducing on an intimate scale the ongoing, sometimes shrill, American debate about persistent poverty.
Experiences such as these can throw light on the gulf between our personal and our institutional responses to poverty. Understanding these differences can, I believe, help make us better citizens, better champions of civil society, more fully aware of the frames we impose on our acts of giving, professional and otherwise.
* The Undeserving Poor: From the War on Poverty to the War on Welfare; Pantheon Books, 1989; p. 14.