Ethics of the poor

Deserving vs. undeserving poor

Keep your coins, I want change.
Photo courtesy of Google Images.

A few articles that have kind of summed up what we’ve learned in the Wealth & Poverty course are “The Undeserving Poor” by Michael Katz and “The Deserving Poor” by Linda Gordon.  The main idea of the course is that everything is interconnected and we can’t fix poverty with band-aid solutions focusing on only one part of the problem.

I think it’s interesting how the author describes the feelings and ideology behind charity as mixed feelings. This makes a lot of sense, how we’re indecisive and not sure how we should view charity or people who need or say they need aid. In his last chapter, Shipler said something similar. He said that America is very uncertain about its government, the role it wants its government to play, and how involved it feels its government should become in the helping of its people.

I thought it was very interesting how the author explains how deservingness is often viewed, through a moral concept. If someone’s morals are in good reputation, then other people will view the person’s neediness as genuine and deserving. So if a person wasn’t very faith-based or didn’t seem to have good morals, then his neediness is viewed as less and others believe he is not as deserving to give aid to, even though he may be just as needy than someone with better morals. This says something interesting about us as humans and society. We base a lot of our decisions and interactions on the values of morals and ethics.

I never thought about it this way until she explained it, how human need used to be very observable and obvious and now how it’s become a bit more hidden, a bit more under the surface, but it’s still there just as much, if not more, and this can impact people’s aid. And how market failures, industrial equivalents of harvest failures (recessions, depressions, structural unemployment, deindustrialization) cause this neediness to also be more perceptible and acceptable but when the market is stable again, and the neediness still occurs, it can become less perceptible or people feel that people shouldn’t be as needy when the market is healthy. I also thought it was a big problem that the children in the debate kept getting ignored and thrown by the wayside. Children were never a part of the discussion and so never taken into consideration, their side was never addressed. And it was mainly for them that the whole notion of welfare was introduced, to be able to support families.

I would agree with the author that it seems that the amount that society feels responsible to help others has decreased drastically over the years. The laws and norms have changed to show that we don’t have legal responsibility for our parents or grown children, our siblings, our neighbors — this all reflects our values and beliefs as a society. So we are either valuing helping each other less or something else, some outside source (or sources) are taking our attention and causing us to care less and feel less responsible to help others. I agree with the observation that settlement creates entitlement, private ownership creates entitlement and the feeling of me vs. them, me being viewed as more important.

I found it really interesting to learn that welfare claiming was a part of the civil rights movement.  Having equal access to all of these things is what the civil rights movement and women’s movement were about. Being excluded from all opportunities, even opportunities of social service, government/public aid. I see how enrolling in welfare was a step in citizenship — a self-esteem booster, in a way, to take charge of your life or getting aid and to enter into a relationship with the government. This step was trying to create upward mobility, to create a change for the next generation, the children.

The stigma of welfare, of welfare recipients as lazy, immoral, and dishonest, was also very interesting to learn about. This stigma perpetuates uninformed decision-making and views of people and their lives. It also uses ungrounded “logic” or beliefs to say that these recipients are not deserving of welfare because they are immoral. I find the whole moral “argument” of welfare or giving aid to be ridiculous. Yes, it would be better if people receiving aid are good people. But then where do you draw the line? At who brushes their teeth twice a day? At who looks nice and suitable? Where? It becomes a matter of belief and perception, views, which are not perfect and can vary from person to person, and are not always right or morally-founded, themselves, so the whole argument of denying someone of aid or saying they’re undeserving of aid because they don’t look as nice or aren’t as morally-founded is ridiculous. How can you choose who is more deserving and not, who needs aid and who doesn’t? If they need it, that’s that, they actually need it. The problem that seems to be covered up is that we don’t have the means to give aid to all those who really deserve it, so we try to come up with some system to say those people don’t really need the aid as much so we won’t give it to them. But to say it’s based off of morals is very strange to me. Morals can be universal, but they often change from person to person.

For the undeserving poor, one concept I found interesting in this reading was that the term “underclass” reinforces the stigma attached to poverty and relief. The term emphasizing the behavior of poor people rather than sources of their poverty — so it acts as a blinder of people to the real causes and effects of this big problem many people face. In order to understand things better, we must try to take the blinders off and see situations and problems and the way people live and what has caused them to need aid (to be in poverty) clearly, looking at all the sides and angles of an issue, looking at all the individuals involved (not just a mass grouping of them, faceless, generalizing, stereotyping) as this doesn’t lead to effective solutions but to band-aid fixes or discriminatory practices, or practices that leave people out (marginalize people). If our aid is to be effective, then we must look at all the aspects involved. And I would say that people are sometimes very deserving of aid. Not everyone is. But many are. And the question is where to draw the line. And it’s a difficult question, maybe a harder one than do we have a responsibility or obligation to give aid in the first place. But we have to address these questions and look at all sides in order to make informed decisions on how to address these issues.

This article was really interesting in that it was voicing the opinion that maybe there are some people who are undeserving of aid. But is this just a cop out? Is this exemplifying society’s indifference and lack of care or want to help others out, the feeling that they need to do something on their own and help themselves and their own families out? Why is there such a need and desire to clarify who deserves of aid and who doesn’t? I know that some people cheat the system and some people are well-off enough not to need aid. But those are different cases than being so nitpicky and having a social worker come in and “judge” a person’s house and looks and morals to decide if they are deserving enough for aid. That’s not really a good or ethical or fair system. The system seems like it wants to weed people out and find some way to say they don’t need aid, to say we won’t offer you any help–but sometimes these people really do need aid and they’re not trying to beat the system. Especially because a lot of the times people who are poor have not become poor of solely their own accord–there are other factors, bigger issues at play, intersections of social problems, it’s not just them and their failings. So if it’s them and society’s failings, we do as society have an obligation to provide aid to these people who we’ve allowed to fall through the cracks. Because yes, they may have fallen through from some of their choices (not finishing education, becoming pregnant at a young age, drugs, etc.), but we also allowed some of these systems to skew very much against them. So we do have this obligation.


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