Aid to the “Deserving Poor”

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.


6 Responses to Aid to the “Deserving Poor”

  1. […] the commission takes pains to make room for what’s essentially the very old concept of the deserving poor. The big difference is that, in the commission’s strategy, all poor are […]

  2. Rana Muhamamd Akra says:

    (I m very Poor) want to save my own children. I m facing difficulties due to no money in my pockit. I have 4 childrens. my mobile number 00923007374447

  3. Marshall Jones, An American Democrat says:

    Your point of view is askew, which is the case most of the time when any commentor these days discusses issues in the terms of ‘wings”; Tax breaks for the poor do not help the poor, since people who don’t have incomes are not taxed. The truly askewed point of view is that so many backward thinking people are under the impression that giving the government more of your money somehow helps the poor. What a strange conclusion. How do you arrive at that? The more obvious and useful conclusion to anyone wishing to help the poor would be to keep the government away from your money so that there is more available for charitible donations. By the way, if you feel you have too much money that you personally don’t deserve, the IRS is more than happy to receive voluntary donations. However, the IRS, and the U S Government as a whole, are very rich. Why not use your money more fruitfully by actually helping the poor hands-on, rather than giving it all to our big gluttonous government?

  4. Kathryn Baer says:

    Well, Mr. Jones, you’re a different brand of Democrat from any I know. Before you go flaming at someone like me, I suggest you get your facts straight.

    Many people whose household incomes put them below the poverty line would have a tax liability were it not for credits like the EITC and the Child Tax Credit. Money that I (and others) pay in taxes provides funds for safety net programs that most certainly help the poor. Charitable organizations can complement these programs, but not substitute. History proves that. Finally, the IRS has no money at all, except the funding it gets to do the work it’s responsible for—mainly collect our taxes.

  5. Kathryn Baer says:

    Rereading my prior response, I realize that I didn’t characterized the role of tax credits properly. Workers whose gross incomes don’t exceed the federal poverty line are unlikely to have a tax liability after personal exemptions and the standard deduction are taken. If one wants to call these “tax breaks,” then they certainly help poor people as well as others.

    The more important point, however, is that the EITC is a refundable credit. So if it results in a negative liability, the taxpayer will get money from the government. This can—and does—lift households above the federal poverty line. The same is true, to a lesser extent, for the partially-refundable Child Tax Credit. In 2010, the EITC alone lifted an estimated 6.6 million people out of poverty, according to IRS.

  6. […] got a modern-day version of the old distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor. Those who don’t work or prepare for work in some specified way can’t have their basic […]

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