Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Undeserving Poor

I read an article in the New York Daily News online (Letter to Obama girls) about a six year old girl who, with the help of her father, wrote to President Obama’s daughters to ask for assistance. As reported, the girl witnessed her mother’s murder two years ago, by an abusive ex-boyfriend, and has been living with her father since her mother’s demise. Her father’s employment has recently become sporadic and he reportedly can’t afford health care, including continued therapy for his daughter, or child care. The comments following the read proved to be more thought provoking than the article and reminded me of the concept of the "undeserving poor" which I studied in graduate school.

The general consensus appeared to be sad story for this little girl but her good for nothing, con artist dad needs to get off his lazy ass and find work. One response even dared to condemn the dead mother for choosing an abusive boyfriend, thus blaming her for her own shooting death. Most people responded along the lines of, there are a million sob stories out there and if you help one you have to help them all.

The label “undeserving poor” dates back to the 18th century and refers to a societal underclass whom by means of their own inferiority, deserve to be poor. Karl Marx offers a more colorful description in his synonymous lumpenproletariat: “This scum of the depraved elements of all classes ... decayed rou├ęs, vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, brothel keepers, tinkers, beggars, the dangerous class, the social scum, that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of the old society." (Wikipedia).

In his book The Undeserving Poor, author Michael B. Katz examines the sociological question of who deserves to be helped. He writes, “Part of the reason is that conventional classifications of poor people serve such useful purposes. They offer a familiar and easy target for displacing rage, frustration, and fear. They demonstrate the link between virtue and success that legitimates capitalist political economy. And by dividing poor people, they prevent their coalescing into a powerful, unified, and threatening political force. Stigmatized conditions and punitive treatment are powerful incentives to work, whatever the wages and conditions.”

Now usually I have strong opinions to share but on this one I have more questions than answers. Perhaps I am more empathetic because I have enough sob stories of my own. But I am left wondering have we, as a society, grown so indifferent to human suffering that our first response to such a tale is to clarify why this family does not deserve to be helped? And, if so, is this apathy a defense mechanism of the societal “haves” against a social responsibility to assist “have nots”? Are the masses really convinced that those who fall victim to financial hardship have simply done so by their own choosing? And finally, if the answers to the former questions are all affirmative then where do we go from there?


  1. Joseph, David, and Matt: I hope you don't mind but I tagged you on my blog: Dear Past, Present, and Future Me

  2. The pinko socialist in me thinks that the soul purpose of government and the civil service is to come to the aid of those citizens that need it the most. I am a proponent of a strong social safety net. Promote and celebrate ambition and stick-to-itness, of course, but damn it, you have to take care of your own.

    Ya, I know, that is not the American way, talk like that flies in the face of the American dream. Thing is...shhhh... don't tell anyone, but I am in fact Canadian, we think a little differently up this way.

    Great post as usual Gale. Thanks for sharing.

    Oh and Steph, I might take on my past, present and future...seems like it might for a fun ride. Thanks for thinking about me.

  3. Thanks, Joseph! I can't wait to read it!

    My apologies to you, ggSpiritWrites, I didn't mean to come all in your "house" and grab others for a post without so much as a hello, lol! I really do have better manners than that, honestly! I did not mean to take away at all from your excellent post. It is very interesting and I agree, the whole thing leaves me with more questions than answers. Very thought provoking!

  4. We will always have the poor. It doesn't mean the gov(ultimately the people through taxes) should take care of them. It is the church and the social responsibility of all who are better off to donate funds and material needs. In fact if you look at the people on skid row it is a terrible example of how our government deals with the homeless. It is shamefull. Many homeless are there by choice because they are mentally ill. The gov spends very little on mental illness. Once a person gets too far beyond help, they are cast off to wander in the streets. The only real help the poor get is through charitable groups, churches, and places like St Joesephs Hospital, City of Hope and the Shriners which truely do serve the poor. Government is not efficient enough to do a decent job at these things. That is why they should leave it to groups who do. They provide assistance for families who don't have enough income when there are children in the form of welfare but the rules they make force that very same family into a life of dependancy on the government. If you make any money at all they take the assistance away. There is no room for growth or opportunity to get up out of a poor lifestyle when you need government assistance. It is a failed system. This is why so many are against the government running healthcare. They will ineviatbly force all to rely on them for all healthcare. My Mom passed away after living with substandard services provided by Medicare. To this day they pay about 56% of the real cost of healthcare on every dollar and they have not raised the payouts since the early 80's. Its no wonder those who are on Medical even get any care. The hospital my Mom was in was horrid and it was all because she was on Medicale. I can say one thing for sure...until you walk a mile in the shoes of the poor you really don't know what its like. I have been there. Its not an easy problem. I don't think the poor are undeserving or deserving. They are a part of society that will always be there. It is how we treat them that reflects on us as a society and the depth of our character.

  5. Yay Cathy! I of course think quite the opposite. Not that I don't think that there is room for charities and nonprofits to help the government in aiding the poor or the mentally ill... but I don't think, and maybe this is because the Canadian government (which isn't anywhere near perfect itself) is not quite as bogged down as the American system, that the government has no business in aiding its citizens. Quite the contrary, i believe that the sole purpose of government is to come to the aid of its citizens. I believe the strong, the healthy, the stable in a society can govern themselves, we (the contributors), have little need for government intervention. I have no interest in the system, I try my damnedest to stay as far away from the systems as I can. But, if heaven forbid my life went all to shit, I would hope that when the chips are down, there is a government safety net that will catch me lest I fall into the void.

    Thanks Cathy for commenting. We have a lot of fun here. It is not all politics, but your perspective is always welcome and I am know we will get into some real humdingers if you continue to play along.