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 roués, 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?