The Return of the Undeserving Poor

In the nineteenth century, critics and policy makers made a clear distinction between the “deserving” and the “undeserving” poor. The deserving poor worked hard, kept their homes and families clean, went to church regularly, maintained sobriety, and otherwise adhered to middle-class morals. They deserved help because their poverty was not their fault. But the undeserving poor had earned their poverty not only by refusing to work, or to work hard enough, but also by rejecting the middle-class model. If they were poor, it was because they hadn’t tried hard enough.


This should sound familiar to anyone who’s been reading op-ed pages lately. While no one has yet directly accused today’s poor people of being “undeserving,” scholars and pundits have been fretting about their morals. In Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010, Charles Murray argued that declining morality among the lower class (which as one reviewer noted, Murray was “too polite” to name) was creating economic and social dysfunctions. Robert Putnam traces similar patterns in his latest book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, though Putnam also notes the role of deindustrialization in shaping those patterns. But in response to Putnam’s study, David Brooks focuses on the moral issues rather than economics or policy. In many poor areas, he writes, “there are no minimally agreed upon standards for what it means to be a father. There are no basic codes and rules woven into daily life.” He suggests that we should hold the poor and working class “responsible” for their choices.

These and other commentaries suggest a shift in focus in American public discourse about economic inequality. Rather than hearing about the power of a few elites to influence policy so that they gain an ever larger share of wealth, and rather than analyzing how business and employment practices contribute to the stagnation and decline in wages – the kinds of issues raised by the Occupy Movement — the debate increasingly focuses on whether those who have less are victims of policies and business practices or of their own flawed morality.


Poor and working-class people, some critics argue, contribute to their troubles by not having stable marriages, giving birth to too many children from too many fathers, not being reliable workers, and over-indulging in drugs and alcohol. They focus on momentary pleasures rather than long-term planning, and parents aren’t sufficiently willing to sacrifice to improve their children’s lives. For commentators like Murray and Brooks, these behaviors are based in weak morality, not in social or economic conditions. The discussion echoes ideas that surfaced in the 1960s, when the Moynihan Report famously blamed the economic struggles of African Americans on the rise of the matriarchal family.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t be concerned about the effects on children – and on the wider social fabric — of drug and alcohol abuse, household instability, or domestic and neighborhood violence. These are real problems, and they undermine children’s sense of security and connection and teach children to have low expectations for their futures, which in turn can contribute to problems in school. However, analyses that look only at the problems in poor and working-class communities miss important strengths that may not be visible to the more elite outsiders who conduct these studies and write the columns. They may miss the networks of mutual aid that help people survive when they lack other resources, and they undervalue the street smarts and resilience that children can learn from growing up amid struggle.


More important, they too easily dismiss the structural and policy causes of these patterns and underestimate the challenges of creating stability in an era when steady jobs are becoming ever more scarce. How can people establish stable home lives when so many jobs are temporary, poorly paid, and require workers to juggle constantly changing shifts at multiple work sites? One explanation of the instability of many poor and working-class households appears in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, which outlines how instead of reducing drug use or the drug trade, the war on drugs ensured that many poor children grew up with their father in prison instead of in the home. As Alexander notes, after prison, fathers often can’t return to their homes or find stable employment.

Critics too often oversimplify both the causes and the debate. For example, Ross Douthat suggests a false and simplistic divide, claiming that those on the left blame poverty entirely on money, while those on the right blame it on morals. Putnam’s book makes clear that both the issue and the debate are more complex than this. But though he ties the social decline of the poor and working class to the loss of industrial jobs, he then suggests solutions that focus on strengthening families and education, suggesting policy changes that don’t address the larger economic causes. And in today’s political climate, his prescriptions reflect wishful thinking rather than realistic strategies.


To be fair, both Brooks and Douthat temper their concerns for the morality of the poor with calls for the elite to change, as well. As Brooks writes, “privileged people suffer from their own characteristic forms of self-indulgence: the tendency to self-segregate, the comprehensive failures of leadership in government and industry. Social norms need repair up and down the scale, universally, together and all at once.” Douthat offers an even stronger critique of the elite, though he still casts the problem in moral terms: “our upper class should be judged first — for being too solipsistic to recognize that its present ideal of ‘safe’ permissiveness works (sort of) only for the privileged, and for failing to take any moral responsibility (in the schools it runs, the mass entertainments it produces, the social agenda it favors) for the effects of permissiveness on the less-savvy, the less protected, the kids who don’t have helicopter parents turning off the television or firewalling the porn.”

I want to suggest a different way of thinking about the elite’s role, focused less on personal morality and more on social responsibility. What might happen if the elite stopped pursuing profit at all costs and embraced the social responsibility of creating working conditions that foster stability for working families? What if instead of blaming the “undeserving poor,” they took responsibility for using their own power to change the conditions that create instability for poor and working-class lives?

Sherry Linkon

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21 Responses to The Return of the Undeserving Poor

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  8. non binary person says:

    Is it just me? I am more disgusted by the term “undeserving poor” than by pretty much any vulgar term including “lazy poor.” It just seems like a pretentious way to say that this or that individual is worthless, i.e. isn’t deserving of anything. Whereas calling someone lazy may sound crass, we’ve all used it on family members or friends, in jest or maybe even a little bit seriously “are you really that lazy, fill in the blank. Get your own snack” or whatever. Yet we’d never tell our sibling, buddy, or kid they aren’t “deserving.” Just think about it. It’s actually much, MUCH harsher.


    • Roy W Wilson says:

      I agree with Sherry’s analysis. I think the root problem is that we do not have a good account of how individual “choice” and social “structure” come together in social action. As a result, most commentary devolves to something relatively simple, easy to affirm, and emotionally satisfying. That said, I don’t know the answer either, although I think the “morphogenetic approach” as taken up Phil Gorski might be a way forward.


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  12. Roy Wilson says:

    Nice contrast followed by a helpful suggestion to the elite. Less helpful, perhaps, is the obsevation thar blame comes from the attribution of responsibility. The elite are often, perhaps, bred to the illusion that they are or should be self-made and thus deserving of their material success. In the case of the poor, their engagement in “immoral” practices invites the judgement that they are, in some essential way, responsible for their fate. Either side is too simple, of course. The sociologist Margaret Archer has made a groundbreaking attempt to unravel the ways in which structural constraints and enablements are activated by the ultimate concerns of individuals, which in turn are often shaped by those structural factors in a time-dependent way.


  13. Joe Phillips says:

    Here is a free book on political literacy written by a lifelong union member. Please pass the link around. It is an easy read for the general public.


  14. Jack Labusch says:

    (1) FWIW-the distribution of wealth and income seems to me so muddied by various rationales that it’s often difficult to make sensible statements about the deservedness or undeservedness of wealth and income. You need real expertise sometimes to discern how things have been divvied up.

    (2) Individuals and political constituencies will, knowingly or unknowingly, falsify and psychologically vest in a falsehood about how they’ve come into something of value. Identifying, and breaking through that “locus of falsity” (my made-up phrase) for some political end, will take huge amounts of money.

    (3) Refusal to work may make good economic sense. E. g., a skilled tradesman, professional worker, or technical worker may reject a $14 an hour offer in his field for a $9 an hour less skilled job if he judges that commuting and other uncompensated but typical work expenses, plus qualitative factors, make the $14 an hour offer undesirable.


  15. Fred Anderson says:

    It’s hard to know where to start.

    Perhaps with deindustrialization. I suspect much of this traces back to favoring consumers over producers. So we have ever more free-trade pacts, because consumer-voters want access to cheaper (than domestically-produced) foreign goods. And ever more hostility to the only people — “the 1%” — who have the spare $200 million needed to gamble on building a factory where relatively unskilled workers could find work productive enough to pay them a decent wage. Indeed, a regulatory environment that makes it pretty clear we really don’t want such facilities in our physical environment at all.

    Juggling fragmented schedules is at least partly due to our shifting toward a more customer-centric services-based economy. Now scheduling is based more on when do the customers want what, and less on a need to keep the capital-intensive production facility in continuous operation. After all, one of the distinctive characteristics of services is that they are less capital-intensive than manufacturing. Thus now we strive to keep the customers happy, rather than the (less needed) capital suppliers.

    Dr. Linkon’s solution is to hope that love will triumph over rationality. I take “love” to be a condition where you place another’s welfare ahead of your own. It is inherently irrational, since “Rationality” includes a requirement that, when faced with a choice, you choose so as to maximize your utility: If you knowingly take the less beneficial (dare I say, “profitable”?) option, we say you’re behaving irrationally. Given the dissolution of community, and our increasing isolation one from another, I doubt that love has much of a chance.

    Praises at least to Larry Smith and Robert Cox (and Michelle Alexander) for noticing some of the necessary pieces, if we are to move forward.

    (And, yes, I suspect that Brooks and Douthat (and Moynihan) are (were) closer to the truth than many of us want to acknowledge. Douthat’s piece, particularly, edges near an observation that what many liberals believe about our economic history fits their psychological needs better than it fits the actual facts. One way to get socially hurtful policies would be to be delusional about our reality.)


  16. Frank Stain says:

    Some good points here, but this comment is suggestive of a significant myopia
    ‘What might happen if the elite stopped pursuing profit at all costs and embraced the social responsibility of creating working conditions that foster stability for working families? ‘

    You’ve been hoodwinked here by Douthat and Brooks to think that what they refer to as the ‘elite’ is really the economic elite. The ‘elite’ that Douthat and Brooks are going after is the professional upper-middle class, the legions of lawyers, doctors, educators, tech workers, etc. that dominate upscale urban areas. This is the ‘liberal’ class that is the direct focus of the conservative culture war. The ‘elite’, however, is to be found among the owners of significant economic capital among the 1%. You simply cannot lump the top 20% professional class in with the truly and offensively wealthy 1%. The differences between them have been known since a long time before Piketty provided the rich data to distinguish them.
    The fact that you are falling for conservative culture war shenanigans is disappointing.


  17. szczelkun says:

    Poor responsible? This question is confusing without a perspective on oppression. Oppression isn’t something that happens as an abstract as it is often portrayed in academic discourses. If by oppression we mean the systemmatic mistreatment of one group any another more powerful group then the psychological effects of this go deep and are carried across generations. We have recognised PTSD in ex-combatants and the cycle of abuse but have yet to come to grips with class oppression. What looks like a lack of morality is the profound effects of oppression.

    The effects of oppression are similar to those we associate with abuse. Ie they can lead to self-harm from alcohol and drug use to vituperatively negative self-images particularly in relation to the core issues of class oppression – i.e. lack of intelligence, culture and ability to take charge of areas of social life.

    These embedded factors hold people back from taking steps toward their own liberation BUT at the same time the solutions will not entirely come from middle class people with a conscience. Although the power of a good ally is inestimable. From my experience of co-counselling I think that the key to tackling oppression is disciplined listening. We are not talking ‘Therapy’ – which is associated with the professional approaches that invite a ‘return’ to inevitably middle class norms.

    The reviewer is absolutely right to call attention to hidden strengths within working class communities. These are the key starting place to ‘contradict’ the oppression. But these processes need to be led by working class people not by elites who can almost only reproduce the status quo – even when they overtly are feeling empathy. To expect the class elite to stop pursuing profit at all costs is to misunderstand the opposite end of class oppression. Class elites are psychologically as ’unable’ to give up their profit seeking as the street junkie is ‘unable’ to give up his fix.


  18. Robert Cox says:

    True: everything is connected to everything else. I’m stuck by how difficult it is to capture any sense of a given historical moment or situation. Linear thinking is inadequate when there are so many interrelated co-factors. The dialectic of this article doesn’t even begin to get at cause and effect of a social landscape influenced, on the one hand, by privilege, money, and power, and poverty, deprivation and hopelessness on the other. Complicated: people in my generation, living closer to family inside of a community, weren’t poor in the same way. Maybe we only had one pair of shoes, but how many pairs of shoes do you need? If you don’t feel poor and deprived, are you?

    We need a new kind of scaffolding to throw up around our social reality, so we can see it better. How do you represent reality in the dimensions of a hologram? The systems thinking inside of deep ecology… perhaps. Everyone lives downstream in watersheds we live in.

    F. Scott Fitzgerald famously remarked to Ernest Himingway:” The rich are different from us..” “Yeah,” Himingway is reported to say, “they got more money.”

    They both have a point, of course, But it’s way more complicated…


  19. Kelly Ohler says:

    “What might happen if the elite stopped pursuing profit at all costs and embraced the social responsibility of creating working conditions that foster stability for working families? What if instead of blaming the “undeserving poor,” they took responsibility for using their own power to change the conditions that create instability for poor and working-class lives?” Wow. Really? Does anyone believe, contrary to the very essence of capitalism, that would actually happen? Appealing to the “sensibilities” of an “elite” capitalist class to “do the right thing” and make low-wage slavery palatable to the masses as a form of appeasement? Proposing, in the form of fence-straddling questions, to subtly encourage the non-critical reader to think in uncritical terms, thus marginalizing thoughts of revolt and/or changing the foundations of capitalism? It’s time for academic “elites” to throw in the towel and call it a day.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Larry Smith says:

    Much stirred by this article. Recently on NPR they interviewed social workers to ask this question among others. How do you distinguish betwen the “deserving and undeserving poor.” The social workers at first resisted any easy answer, and all agreed that their training is to treat all individuals with respect. My wife and I have been working with the St. Vincent de Paul charity group and interviewing individuals (listening really) before we offer aid. The purpose of the interview is not to draw a line (St. Vincent de Paul, like Pope Francis would not draw a line and consider the family), but to let them be heard as individuals…often they say that we are the first one to really hear them.

    Liked by 1 person

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