Back in the Elizabethan Age, when the first public poverty program was created, poor people were officially divided into three categories:
- The deserving poor–those who should receive in-kind or cash assistance because they were unable to work due to age or illnesss
- The deserving unemployed–those who should be put in workhouses or, if very young, given apprenticeships because they were able and willing to work but couldn’t find jobs
- The undeserving poor–those who should be beaten or subject to worse punishments because they had recourse to begging
What brought this to mind was a recent article in the New York Times that focuses on the debate over the economic recovery package and our somewhat schizoid view of welfare.
As the article says, right-wing Republicans view tax relief for low-income people–but not for businesses–as welfare. It’s unearned support that stifles initiative or, in the inimitable words of Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, “reward[s] idleness and penalize[s] marriage.”
But what about the vast majority of policymakers–and we who elect them? We seem to agree that low-income children, elderly people and people with severe disabilities are “deserving poor.” We also seem to agree, up to a point, that this category includes other low-income people. Hence, food stamps and housing vouchers.
But in many states, unemployment insurance is reserved for low-income workers who aren’t at the bottom of the income scale. So are other important benefits like the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child and Dependent Tax Credit. Both these credits kick in only when a worker earns more than a specified minimum and increase with his or her earnings. Do we have a spice of the “undeserving poor” mentality here?
I think there’s no question we do when it comes to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. Virtually all adults in the program are subject to reduced benefits unless they continuously engage in activities designed to get them jobs that pay enough to lift them above the income eligibility cut-off. They also have a maximum lifetime eligibility of five years. If you don’t find and keep a job that can support you and your family, you’re going to suffer.
So we seem conflicted about whether poor people who are working and those who are able and willing to work but unemployed are “deserving” or instead prone to idleness like the Elizabethan beggars. We gear tax credits to galvanize workers into boot-strapping themselves up the income scale. We put conditions in TANF to ensure that recipients don’t just sit home and watch TV.
We wouldn’t need these carrots and sticks. But, if the economy keeps spiraling downward, some of us may be subject to them anyway–perhaps already are. And that could do a lot to move us, as a nation, toward policies that treat all low-income people as deserving of a decent standard of living–and respect.