The Deserving & Undeserving Poor

Lynne over at BOPNews asks an interesting question.

Today is Christmas day, and I’m guessing if you looked at American rates of charitable giving throughout the year, you’d see us as most generous in the month of December.

So puzzle me this: why is it we have warm, fuzzy feelings for giving donations to charity but not when our tax dollars are used to help the less fortunate?

With the former, people believe they have done their part in alleviating poverty or helping feed a child and they are lauded. With the latter, I hear the same tired litany about why should their hard-earned money be taken from them and given to some lazy single mother who can’t pull herself up by her own bootstraps?

And she goes one on to supply a reasonable answer.

Some may claim that the difference between taxes and charity is that you volunteer to give to charity. Taxes are mandatory, and as such, a burden, with no option not to pay them. This would be a good argument, except for this: depending on charities to deliver services to the poor is only punishing the good guy. Good behavior should be rewarded, not penalized. The selfish guy can get away with benefiting from the positive effects of helping the less fortunate without having donated to its upkeep. What positive effects, you ask? Well, money spent on the poor generally causes ever-increasing upward mobility, so there are more people to buy Mr. Scrooge’s widgets and he makes more money; a lowered rate of crimes of desperation keep his person and his estate safe; and in a million other ways, everyone’s lives are improved.

The problem with this answer, though, is that it makes the assumption that a significant number of folks — including the conservative uncles she mentions in her post, whose objections to taxes melt away when talk turns the subject of charitable donations — base their votes or any other political decisions they make based on anything resembling reason.

They don’t. We have almost daily headlines of outrages from the current administration to prove it. (That’s not counting the Gallup poll, mentioned by Sam Harris in , The God Who Wasn’t There, revealing that some 44% of Americans believe Jesus will return to earth in their lifetimes.) Believing that they do, or can be convinced to do so, is probably one of the greatest delusions progressives and Democratic politicians have. I can’t prescribe a cure for that delusion, but I think I can point out some of the flaws in the above argument.

It starts with this assumption.

Depending on charities to deliver services to the poor is only punishing the good guy.

This ignores the entire concept of the deserving & undeserving poor, and the deeply American belief that there are some people who deserve to be poor and there are some poor people who are undeserving of help. I wrote about this countless times during Katrina, and it’s basically rehashing George Lakoff, but I’ll repeat it.

Worldly success is an indicator of sufficient moral strength; lack of success suggests lack of sufficient discipline. Dependency is immoral. The undisciplined will be weak and poor, and deservedly so.

…Since discipline is paramount, social programs “spoil” people by giving them things they haven’t earned and keeping them dependent. Social programs are immoral and are to be eliminated in favor of forcing people to be disciplined and self-reliant. It is immoral to coddle immoral people. (emphasis added)

Here, again, is the best I can do with it.

The better off are so because they are better people. Thus if the poor were better people they would be better off. Therefore, there are very few good people who are poor, and probably even fewer well-off people who are bad. What we saw in the post-Katrina suffering was simply bad things happening to bad people. Most, if not all, of the good people had the means to get themselves out of the hurricane’s path and did so.

It’s hard to put it much plainer than that, except to add to it the notion that “god” is on the side of the strong — and not the weak — and the government should be as well.

Mix it all up together, stick it in an oven until it’s half-baked, and you end up with an ideology that people will eat up with both hands if they have any economic strength, or hope to have any because they are sure of their moral virtue and know they will be justly rewarded (even if it means buying another lottery ticket or two), because it at once elevates and absolves them. It elevates them above others who have less (or whom they deem less moral), and absolves them of helping the great many of the poor because the poor are right were they deserve to be. Heaven has mandated it so.

I didn’t say it made sense or that it holds together, just that an awful lot of people happily swallow it whole. Once they do it’s easy to see things as portrayed above and accept it as not just reality but as the way things ought to be.

If you accept all that, then depending on charities to deliver services to the poor isn’t “punishing the good guy.” The good guy has all he needs to take care of himself and his, and if he decides to reinvest his tax cut rather than donate it to charity, that’s his business. Besides, who are we to question the righteous?

And it doesn’t matter that charities will not be able to deliver the same level services to the same amount of people as the government, because the whole idea is that there will be fewer services, and there should be fewer services. The government may be able to help more people, but the problem is that it will inevitably help people who shouldn’t be helped. So less help is better, even some of the folks who may deserve it don’t get it. After all, if they were better people the wouldn’t’ need services in the first place.

It’s the same kind of thinking that makes it easy, as winter approaches, to cut programs that deliver winter heating to the poor; and cut them by more than half.

Home-heat advocates had been hopeful as late as Wednesday night that the Senate would approve two spending bills providing $4.1 billion in fuel assistance. But $2 billion in energy aid was stripped from a defense appropriations bill along with a GOP-backed provision to open Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.

That left just $2.1 billion for this winter’s Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, slightly below last year’s funding.

Letting the poor freeze, after all, isn’t that far from letting them drown. Besides, it’s what many of them deserve. Else, why would they be poor?

About Terrance

Black. Gay. Father. Buddhist. Vegetarian. Liberal.
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5 Responses to The Deserving & Undeserving Poor

  1. Katharine says:

    So puzzle me this: why is it we have warm, fuzzy feelings for giving donations to charity but not when our tax dollars are used to help the less fortunate

    Well, I think some of it is about control. With charity, the giver has a little more say-so about where that contribution goes. For example, I donated to an Atlanta homeless shelter this holiday season.    I know that money is going to benefit the local homeless population, rather than just being "taxes" that might go anywhere from emergency relief to paying the wages of a government worker to paying for military weapons to funding a pregnancy to … any number of things. With taxes, it’s a vague sense of handing it over to the government for any number of goods and services. With a charitable donation, it’s a lot more specific, and I think it’s the amount of detail that makes a difference to many people.

    I can’t help thinking of the "think globally, act locally" adage. Some folks like to feel like they’re helping a neighbor or their community with their charity because it feels a little more personal than just handing it over to the government to allocate as they see fit.  Besides, I hardly trust the current administration to allocate my funds for charity better than I can!

  2. Terrance says:

    Besides, I hardly trust the current administration to allocate my funds for charity better than I can!

    I’ll grant you that much. I wouldn’t trust the current administration with so much as bus fare.

  3. DuWayne says:

    I recently read the novel "We The Living" which has the distinction of being both the first novel Robert Hienlien wrote and nearly his last work published.  Now if your unfamiliar with Hienlien, he’s a libertarian-socialist. (not an oxymoron – I took a test that decided I was a libertarian-communist, they realy meant socialist – just didn’t know the difference)  In it he describes a world of the future where instead of allowing the banks to createw money when they loan it out – the government would take control of that aspect of the economy instead of controling through interest rates.

    Everybody then recieved a monthly stipend from the government – not welfare, but their heritage as an American citizen.  It was enough to cover housing, food and basic entertainment/education.  As a right everyone started on an equal slate – beyond that it becomes up to the individual.  One could in fact "work" or make whatever contribution to society they wished and they would be compensated by those who saw the value in said contributions.

    What made the novel even more extraordinary is that in it Hienlien also describes a rather complex "game" one can play out with any theory of economics using poker chips or other tokens to represent factors in econ.  It will literaly work for any economic system and when you play it out you can gauge in large degree the success of any economic system.  Interestingly. Hienlien didn’t consider the theory he describes in "We The Living" as a socialist structure – nor is it purely, I think he was mostly afraid to admit it was in fact a socialist hybrid.  The biggest problem this country has is it’s absolute fear of the word socialism.  Pure capitalism would destroy this country – but that is what conservatives seem to think is the way to go.  Liberals too often decide the government should babysit the populace although in this neo-con nightmare we’re in now that’s all been twisted around.  

    I highly recommend that novel or at least learning the "game" described therein, you might be surprised to discover that the notion of every American getting a "heritage" stipend is not nearly the radical idea it sounds like. . .

  4. DuWayne says:

    And by the way, if something isn’t done there will be fewer poor come spring.  I had hoped Chavez giving oil to the poor in a couple of cities here in the "wealthiest nation in the world" would embarase the sadistic morons running the country into making sure folks could at least stay above freezing this winter – silly me. . .Thankfully my poverty ridden ass lives in the Portland OR area where it’s warm enough, enough of the time that we don’t have to run the heat very often.  I thought I was going to starve (not guite literaly) when my son got sick and I had to turn the heat up a little.  I am able to maintain 55* otherwise and still eat once a day.  Even managed to get the boy a few cool toys for Christmas and his January birthday thanks to some friends I did a little "extra" work for.  That and a lovely blogger friend who snuck a check in the box of cookies she sent us.

  5. Julia says:

    People give to charity around Christmas time because all that talk of Jesus makes them worry they will go to hell for the crap they do the rest of the year.

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