Poverty and the Poor

Poverty and the Poor - A Political Conversation

Bias and Stereotyping of the poor – Worthy or Unworthy

Long has been the debate around social welfare -- who gets what, how much and for how long? Who are the deserving poor and do we have a moral obligation to support the needy? As Americans we take much of our moral beliefs from religion, which has often defined the attitude and outcome of this age-old conversation.

From the bible, the plight of widows and orphans is repeated throughout the Old and New Testaments. However, consider how this initial law has defined the debate on aid and welfare. The Statute of Laborers, enacted in 1349 in England during the reign of Edward the III, is usually considered the first legislation on welfare -- the start of social security.


The key section of the statute read:

“because that many valiant beggars, as long as they may live of begging, do refuse labor, giving themselves to idleness and vice, and sometimes theft and other abominations; none upon said pain of imprisonment, shall under the color of pity or alms, give anything such, which may labor, or presume to favor them towards their desires, so that thereby they may be compelled to labor for their necessary living.” The Poverty of Welfare Reform, Joel F. Handler, 1995

This statute was an attempt to force beggars to seek work by preventing the giving of alms – in other words, cutting off welfare. 667 years later in 2009 in a small Texas town, a city council member proposed a similar law which would have made giving money to beggars a crime, essentially cutting off welfare.

The immigrants from England to the Americas brought with them the moral belief that work was the cure for the impoverished and that idleness was immoral, thus the statement from Cotton Mather, “For those who indulge in idleness, the express command of God unto us is that we should let them starve.” This statement was not reflective of the beatitudes; rather it was based on human belief and personal bias, though the statement was made during the culture of the time and therefore reflected the vaues and belief of industry. However, in 2012 the statement, though posed with different words perhaps less harsh, stills send out a similar message -- work or die poor. Today the message remains the same, the myth that individual drive and industry is enough to pull you from the deep well of poverty is the sacred cow which is still worshiped and glorified.

The crash of 1929 brought a new and chilling experience for the people of the Unites States -- a depression so deep and ravaging that many families broke up to survive, took to the roads in search of a better life and lived in such deep despair that they were immobilized.

The New Deal,spearheaded by the Democratic Party, brought hope and relief to the swelling numbers of poor, black and white; the New Deal helped the poorest of the poor. The nation’s spirits began to rise and hope once more entered into the hearts and minds of the poor, anxious for meaningful economic relief.

In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, two schools of thought were offered to the general public regarding race, poverty and the social order. Conservatives argued that poverty was caused, not by structural factors related to race and class, but rather by culture ... particularly black culture. The social pathologies of the poor, specifically street crime, illegal drug use and delinquency were redefined by conservatives as having their cause in overly generous relief arrangements. Black “welfare cheats” and their dangerous offspring emerged for the first time in political discourse.

Liberals, by contrast, insisted that social reforms such as the War on Poverty and civil rights legislation would get to the “root causes” of criminal behavior and stressed social conditions that predictably generated crime.

For the first time in recent national discourse, competing images of “deserving” and “undeserving” poor became central components of the national debate. The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander, 2011

However, over the next decades, both conservatives and liberals would carry similar agendas relating to welfare to work, reducing aid to families and setting time limits on how long a family could stay on TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families). This approach is not new, rather it is the same program that has existed since 1349 -- work is the answer, and we enable the poor to linger in misfortune by providing too many opportunities for aid. There have been a few families and individuals who have benefited from this approach, but history shows us a different side of the welfare to work attitude. The data simply does not bear out the myth promoted by these federal programs.


Key Assumptions about the nature of poverty and its cures:

  • Dependency -- We are not talking about reliance on a system to support a family. We are talking about a moral behavior-- the refusal to work and a system that cultivates the lazy person -- the person who refuses to have the proper work ethic.
  • A belief that providing aid destroys the work ethic. It is not a matter of economics; it is a fundamental threat to the very core of American/Anglo European values which is a strong work ethic.
  • The individual requiring aid is flawed. It is the behavior of the individual which is broken rather than the environment. Self-sufficiency, through a strong work ethic, is repeated in every welfare-to-work reform bill. Changing the individuals, rather than changing the labor market where poor people are most likely to find underpaying jobs, is the primary goal of these bills. There is always work for people who want to work.
  • Reform efforts should be largely directed at adults, ignoring the significant impact poverty and homelessness have on the developing child, even though the behaviors of the parents are passed onto the child.