The Undeserving Poor: A Very Tiny History

“Blessing Christ” circa 1200

In the column I published yesterday in the Post (and Sunday in the print version), I argued that poor people shouldn’t be forced to work to receive government assistance. A little bit of history wound up on the cutting room floor (and rightfully so) but I wanted to share it with you here, along with a couple other thoughts on the same subject, in case you’re interested.

The Undeserving Poor: A Very Tiny History

That some people in need of help are flawed in various ways isn’t a modern discovery. Nor is it an anxiety that came about with the rise of state welfare programs. In the Latin West, distinctions have always been drawn between those deserving of generosity and those not, though the dividing lines have changed over time.

In pre-Christian Rome, generosity was bestowed not on the basis of need, but of citizenship. The wealthy gave to their fellow citizens not because they were necessarily poor, though some of them were, but because they were esteemed brother-citizens. In the city of Rome, citizens may have made up less than half of the population; simply living there did not entitle one to citizenship. The non-citizen strangers and poor living among its slums were not considered deserving of the largesse of the city’s rich. As Peter Brown writes in Through the Eye of a Needle, “Showing generosity to the many thousands of beggars and immigrants who lingered on the margins of the city was not an act of charity. It was a snub to the citizen body.”

So the Christian preachers of late antiquity had their work cut out for them. Not only did they have to create the poor as a social category in the popular imagination, they had to convince Roman socialites that the distinction between the haves and the have-nots was the relevant one in deciding how to distribute gifts.

I’ve written about Augustine’s efforts to that end for The Point Magazine. But it’s worth noting that he, too, emphasized a distinction between those poor deserving of gifts, and those not — albeit in a way that’s foreign to modern thought. Augustine discouraged Christians from giving gifts to, inter alia, fortune-tellers, gladiators, actresses and prostitutes, all of whom would’ve likely been poor in all but a few, exceptional cases. Augustine appears to argue that this is because people mainly give to these groups in order to encourage them to continue in their profession — which sounds more like patronage than charity, but again, we’re operating in a period where the distinction isn’t sharp yet. Augustine says that when one gives to someone in their capacity as an evil-doer, one is encouraging what is most evil in them, which is actually harmful to them. Thus he inveighs against it. (His medieval interpreters, rightly I think, still believed Augustine meant to urge giving, just not giving with vice on the mind. Johannes Teutonicus Zemeke glossed it as: “The vice is not to be nourished, but nature is to be sustained.” Seems correct to me.)

Other church fathers were much less discriminating. John Chrysostom and Augustine’s own teacher Ambrose both line up on the give-to-those-who-ask side of things, generally, and are each cited by medieval canonists in favor of giving without discrimination of virtue.

The medievals were thus of two minds. Even within Gratian’s Decretum, two different opinions emerge: “In hospitality there is to be no regard for persons, but we ought to welcome indifferently all for whom our resources suffice,” on the one hand, and that Christians had no obligations whatsoever to able-bodied beggars. Zemeke, again, glossed it thus: “The Church ought not to provide for a man who is able to work…for strong men, sure of their food without work, often neglect justice.” As Brian Tierney puts it in Medieval Poor Law: “Poverty as such was not a crime in the eyes of the canonists, but certainly willful idleness was.”

Of course, willful idleness had a different social resonance in the middle ages, when even small numbers of townsfolk neglecting their work could mean disaster for everyone else. Unemployment as we know it — the phenomenon of people who want to work being unable to find it — was virtually unknown to them; labor shortages were a more pressing problem. Thus, as Peter Speed points out in his anthology of medieval primary sources Those Who Worked, “there was no question of medieval people trying to eradicate poverty. In the first place, it would have been an impossible task, for there were not nearly enough resources to accomplish it.” There simply wasn’t enough production to go around, a fact that was complicated by several bouts of famine and plague. So the medievals had their own reasons for holding idleness in particularly low esteem.

In three different eras, in other words, we encounter three different ways of slicing up the poor into those who deserve charity and those who don’t. For the pre-Christian Romans, it was all about citizenship; for (some of) the Church fathers, it was about avoiding the nurturing of vice; for the medievals, idleness was an extraordinary offense, but there were very careful distinctions made between those unfortunately out of work (as those struck by famine) and those neglecting their opportunities.

To skip a bit, it’s around the Victorian era that the reigning view of poverty relief programs as convenient tools for administering social hygiene arose. As Walter Trattner points out in From Poor Law to Welfare State:

“Public assistance would be confined to institutional care, mainly for the “worthy” or hard-core poor, the permanently disabled, and others who clearly could not care for themselves. Also, the able-bodied or “unworthy” poor who sought public aid would be institutionalized in workhouses where their behavior not only could be controlled but where, removed from society and its tempting vices, they presumably would acquire habits of industry and labor and thus prepare themselves for better (i.e., self-sufficient) lives.”

This is to say nothing of all of the other daft, punitive, seemingly sadistic measures taken to reduce the population of poor people during that same period, and well into the 20th century. But zeroing in on the relationship between work and worthiness alone, the Victorians’ reasons for insisting on work had shifted from the medieval consensus. Now, idleness was neither a sin against others nor an existential threat to the community, but was rather a failure of personal moral hygiene. The poor needed to be taught the virtues and habits of diligence and shorn of their vices because their poverty kept them from being fully self-reliant individuals. To be less than individual is to be less than truly free, on the one hand, and to keep others from being less than truly free on the other. In this framework, being poor, insofar as it obligates others to help you, begins to look like something straightforwardly immoral.

We’re inheritors of this view of poverty as a kind of immorality, and insofar as poverty places coercive (legal) demands on others, as something almost criminal — taxation is theft, the libertarian slogan goes. Workfare is a kind of outsourcing of the workhouse to private businesses, the reasoning behind which is remarkably similar to the old fashioned Victorian reasoning about workhouses. Here’s Larry Mead, the intellectual godfather of welfare reform, speaking in a 2013 congressional testimony:

The purpose of welfare, then, is not primarily to support people in need, important though that is. Sheer destitution is uncommon in America today, either on or off welfare. Rather, welfare should direct the poor toward more productive lives where possible — lives they themselves seek. Those who are expected to work — men or women — should indeed do so. The one thing welfare reform clearly changed about the poverty lifestyle was to raise poor mothers’ work levels. That was not an accident. The poor respond to what society clearly expects of them.

Mead has no campaign that I know of to get wealthy mothers who do not need welfare out of the house and behind the counter of your local Arby’s. (This is a point I questioned him about when we debated at Johns Hopkins some time ago; he claimed that wealthy stay-at-home mothers do have bosses of a kind — their husbands. Poor mothers often don’t. Conclude from that what you will.) In his vision, and in the welfare state Clinton left us with, we can see the vision of welfare not as assistance but as a tool of social control — Mead openly says as much. The intention is to shape poor people into the kind of people we want them to be, not to help them flourish as they are, or as they intend to be. Market labor, productivity and self-sufficiency are all aspects of that reformed person welfare ought to create, in this transformative framework.

I don’t think the root cause of poverty is indolence, generally. And even if, in some cases, it is, it seems Augustine’s original counsel as glossed by Johannes makes some sense: When you elect as a society to create baseline quality of life for everyone, you’re not doing that because you’re attempting to discourage productivity or social cohesion, both of which come naturally to people anyway, but because you’re trying to create a society which overall values all people equally. You can’t get there by trying to transform the people you don’t value into people you’re willing to value.



Columnist at @WashingtonPost. Christian. Enjoy links, jokes, pics of birds.

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Elizabeth Bruenig

Columnist at @WashingtonPost. Christian. Enjoy links, jokes, pics of birds.