The Persistence of the ‘Undeserving Poor’

This week’s debates over the government’s refusal to extend the free school meals scheme into the half-term holiday in England has seen the resurgence of an old idea that never really went away – the idea of the ‘undeserving poor’. MPs and others, defending the government’s refusal to pay for food for children from poor families, made various claims about the behaviour and lives of some of these families. There were (unsubstantiated) accusations of school meal vouchers being exchanged for drugs or spent on alcohol. There were much more widespread accusations that impoverished parents were failing in their responsibilities or making wrong choices – including the ‘choice’ to have children at all.

Most of these accusations against recipients of free school meals were framed by disclaimers – or hastily followed up by explanations – to the effect that the speaker was not claiming that all poor families were behaving badly or foolishly; some even acknowledged that they were speaking about ‘a minority’. The fact that some poor people were behaving badly or foolishly, however, has been offered as a reason to withhold a benefit from them all (or rather, from all their children). Rationally, this makes no sense. Against the background of the long history of poverty’s moralisation, however, it proves rather effective.

Since at least the reign of Elizabeth I, the English approach to the relief of poverty has been framed by moral judgements on the lives of the poor. When the first Poor Law was framed at a time of economic upheaval and widespread poverty, distinctions were drawn between those who deserved to receive support from local parishes – because their poverty was just a matter of bad luck – and those ‘sturdy’ beggars whose poverty was their choice or their fault, because they were capable of work, and who therefore must not be helped. Successive laws until the formation of the post-war welfare state changed the rules and the criteria, and the targets of moral judgement – focusing for example on the threats to society posed by unmarried mothers, or Irish migrant workers, or large families. What did not change was the assumption that there were at least some poor people who should not be helped – and hence that the first step towards helping ‘the poor’ was to judge them, both for their own benefit and for the benefit of society. Asking for help meant, and still means, placing yourself under judgement and hence under suspicion, being forced against the odds to prove that you are not one of the ‘undeserving’.

The other side of making one group subject to judgement is, of course, appointing somebody to sit in judgement. People who controlled the material resources, it was assumed, also had the moral resources to decide who did and did not deserve help. Their Christianity, as they saw it, supplied them with the tools for judgement. They should reward temperance, hard work, careful use of resources, and proper gratitude for what was given. They should avoid rewarding the kind of ‘improvidence’ – excessive spending of money or excessive procreation – that threatened the social order established by divine Providence.

At various points in the UK’s history, it proved difficult to persuade some wealthy Christians to fall in with the latest version of the plan for judging the poor before giving them anything. This is not surprising; consider the repeated injunctions in the Bible, not only to give generously to the poor, but specifically to give to everyone who asks, or to give to those who will not repay, or to give whatever is required in times of dire emergency regardless of existing obligations; and the long tradition that regards charitable giving as itself a good action regardless of the merits of the recipient. Some public responses to the failure to fund school meals have drawn creatively on these traditions – look for example at the biblical verses on the empty plates left in protest outside the office of one MP.

Beyond these calls to generosity without judgement, however, the most important response from Christian texts and traditions to the latest appearance of the ‘undeserving poor’ might be to challenge the whole practice of dividing society into the judging and the judged, the ‘respectable’ and the suspect. The underlying problem is the fracturing of community that makes it impossible to recognise the neighbour as one ‘like yourself’, in a relationship of mutual responsibility and accountability. The biblical authors are aware of the temptation to skew public judgement in favour of the rich in a society already divided by disparities of wealth– and they repeatedly resist it in the name of a God who is no respecter of persons and defends the interests of the least powerful. The decisive judgement of ‘the nations’ is told as a story in which the judge is not the person who has the power to give or withhold help to those in need – but rather is one of the people who need the help.

The basic injustice of the stigma attached to poverty – and of the unequal exposure of people’s lives to moral judgement and criticism – will persist beyond the current debate, and will need to be challenged however that debate is resolved.

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