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The Undeserving Poor and Our Obligations to Them

Katy Preen
Mar 28, 2019 · 7 min read

We attach a moral value to welfare payments, but why?

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Edinburgh Castle on the day of the Make Poverty History March, Photo © Paul Ashwin (cc-by-sa/2.0)

Yesterday, I read an article by Melissa Chu, titled Being Poor Doesn’t Mean Someone is Stupid, Weak, or Lazy, about the cycles that reinforce poverty and wealth, and inhibit social mobility. We like to think that we live in a meritocracy, where anyone can pull themselves up by the bootstraps and become as successful as the next person, as long as they put in the effort. Unfortunately, the reality is very different, and there are doors that open for some while slamming closed for others.

Perhaps we need to rethink the value of merit. Because we are fixated on the idea of work being the best route out of poverty, we think that those requiring financial assistance must prove that they ‘deserve’ it. The UK benefits system operates on the principle of forcing claimants to demonstrate that they have tried literally everything to find work, or that they are so ill they could keel over at any minute. But what about those that cannot demonstrate their merit or worthiness? They still need to eat.

It is a system designed to induce hardship and communicate the message that being on benefits is undesirable and precarious. But being in work does not guarantee a way out of poverty. In Britain, the majority of benefit claimants are in work, and yet they are still subject to the same demeaning and time-wasting conditions as those with no job at all. You count as ‘employed’ in the UK even if you work only one hour per week, hence the UK’s phenomenal employment rate.

Work isn’t a route out of poverty for everyone because some are only capable of doing low-paid, menial work, or they can’t work as many hours as they’d like, or there just aren’t the jobs available. Some aren’t able to absorb the lessons needed to acquire new skills and rise up the corporate ladder, and some have caring responsibilities that not only restrict their hours, but also the type of work that is available to them.

Clearly, people in those situations are doing the best they can, and working damned hard as well, but they’re not rewarded for the amount of effort they put in. Many of us might look down upon them, partly ascribing their poverty to their own choices, but also just thinking that we are better than them. We feel that they get what they deserve — although their misfortune is not totally within their control.

Let us consider the “undeserving poor”; those who are considered skivers and benefit scroungers. The definition has expanded in recent years to include more and more people: the long-term sick and disabled, single mothers, carers, the unqualified. We used to frown upon only the feckless and idle, yet even they have reasons for being the way they are.

A lot of the benefit claimants that we disapprove of, are not capable of functioning normally in society. Some of them might well choose a life on benefits, but they don’t have many other options. No-one freely chooses that sort of life; a life with a job that pays properly and gives some satisfaction and meaning is always better than scraping by on state benefits.

These are the type of people who lived on the council estate where I grew up; they are vulnerable and live chaotic lives. They’re not capable of work because they are too “stupid, weak and lazy”: they don’t know how to function properly in society. They live at the margins, getting by but not really living. And now, with the benefits system reformed to enforce compliance through sanctions, they’re not even getting by.

The Conservative government’s benefit reforms assume that everyone can lift themselves out of poverty by their own efforts. But these individuals lack the aptitude, intelligence and knowledge to help themselves. They don’t fit the ideology, but instead of doing something to help them survive, the government actually makes their lives harder. They are even less likely to find their way out of poverty.

The number one solution to poverty is money. All the evidence shows that if you give poor people enough money, they are no longer poor. Yet instead of just looking at the reality, our value judgments about the people who are poor, prevent us from implementing the most straightforward solution. Instead we come up with schemes to get the unemployable into work (that don’t work), and we seek to punish them when life’s already punished them quite enough.

Poverty is a contributing factor to so many of the ills in our society; it affects all of us. It is responsible for an increase in crime, relationship breakdown, obesity, poor health, poor educational outcomes, an increased likelihood of suicide, divisions in communities, alcohol and drug abuse, and a whole lot more. And it is us that either picks up the tab for all these problems, or has to live in a society where these issues go unchecked and impinge upon our own lives.

Why would we want this? We have the means to eliminate all these social problems, if only we’d let go of our selfishness and spite for those who aren’t as capable as we are. We believe that state assistance is a freebie that people get for being lazy, when in fact it is more of a compensation payment for having a shit life.

The UK benefits system is so stingy that it is not enough to survive on. Benefit claimants with no chance of getting work resort to skipping meals, not using electricity or gas, or worse, to crime, in order to live. Many people have become homeless, and thousands have vanished from the system altogether. As well as “incentivising” work, the system is designed to frighten people into employment by threat of starvation.

The “skivers vs. strivers” narrative popularised by David Cameron convinced us that the only reason someone would be out of work was through a logical choice to put their feet up and refuse to participate. There’s a real animosity not only to those actually on benefits, but those who we perceive to be poor, sick or disabled. This widespread attitude is a disease itself; distorting our beliefs to justify neglect and cruelty to our fellow citizens.

Why does it bother us so much when other people get something we don’t? What effect does it have on our lives? None whatsoever. We might say that we don’t want “our” taxes being spent on malingerers and slobs, but that’s not how taxes work. We don’t get to cherry-pick the things we approve of for public spending — if that was the case, social problems would spiral out of control. If you want a nice society to live in, then you have to spend money on unpopular causes.

If only we could mind our own business and accept that life in a society requires some collective input. There will always be people living outside of our personal sense of what is acceptable, and that is just tough. We can’t change that, and if we do try to, the consequences can be horrific. All you need to do to see that is to read the statement by the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, from their visit to the UK last year.

“In the area of poverty-related policy, the evidence points to the conclusion that the driving force has not been economic but rather a commitment to achieving radical social re-engineering” — Prof. Philip Alston

The UK has run an experiment in which it tried to starve people into work and self-improvement, and it failed. We always knew the outcome; it was the imposition of an ideology rather than a genuine enquiry into the consequences of welfare reform. The idea behind it was economic Darwinism, that if one is too inept to support oneself, then they are removed by natural selection.

Is that the level we really want to operate at? We are not animals. We have built amazing systems and structures which meant we don’t have to let people starve, and we can provide an adequate — good, even — standard of living for all. Why wouldn’t we use them? Perhaps society has not yet reached the level of maturity needed to share resources equitably. If we seek to further the cause of humanity, shouldn’t our priority be to ensure that we all have the best we can provide?

Our world is built on inequality and unfairness. A tiny number hold unimaginable wealth while others have nothing. We need the concept of an underclass to justify such disproportionate rewards for a handful of people. The greater that inequality becomes, the more we all suffer. Instead of considering the poor “undeserving”, let’s think about the minimum standards we all deserve, and the contributions we must make to maintain them.

We seem unwilling to accept that not everyone can, must, or wants to work, and that we can carry on as we are without them doing so. Instead of thinking of the greater benefit to humanity, we nitpick over who we think deserves welfare, or why we’re not getting anything from the government when someone else is. Don’t we have better things to use our mental energy on? Perhaps we could achieve far more as a species if we’d use our minds for something worthwhile.

If you use welfare as a tool of control and coercion, there are going to be social consequences that we must either put up with, or spend millions (or billions) on mitigating. Our demand that the poor account for every penny they get from the public purse makes us all poorer by creating the conditions for squalor, neglect and misery. We can do better as humans, but there are some that can’t as individuals. It’s none of our business why — and it’s certainly not our place to punish them for it.

There’s no such thing as the “undeserving poor”. There are many people who just don’t know how to, or can’t, help themselves. These people are vulnerable and need our assistance. It’s easy for them to fall through the cracks because there might not be any diagnosis, reason or lack of anything in particular that makes them the way they are, but they are failing nonetheless. They know they’re failing, and they don’t need a reminder. Let’s not make their lives worse, or we all will suffer.

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse.

Katy Preen

Written by

Journalist, author, feminist. Reading the comments so you don’t have to.

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical.

Katy Preen

Written by

Journalist, author, feminist. Reading the comments so you don’t have to.

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical.

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