3 thoughts on “Rowan Williams sowed confusion last week when he raised the distinction between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor”

  1. Posted 14/06/2011 at 13:32 | Permalink

    The distinction between the deserving and underserving poor is not a new one. Elements of it can be seen in the attitudes and policies of the last Tory government. Even worse (in my view at least), it is a mindset that seemed to infect the last Labour government as well at times. Policies such as the introduction of child tax credits and working tax credits, and attacks on those on DLA, all gave the impression that the state should only help those who could work and were working, or those who had children. Those that didn’t fall into these categories were either quietly forgotten (at least publicly) or penalised.

    This issue (deserving and undeserving poor) arises because of current political attitudes to the poor, and attempts by both politicians and voters to explain and justify the existence of the poor. These explanations appear to now centre on two main alleged causes.

    The first potential cause of poverty is deemed to be misfortune: disability and disease, or just the severely limited hand that life has dealt to some.

    The second cause, we are led to believe, is self-inflicted. People are poor it is argued by virtue of their own poor decisions. Thus they have no-one to blame but themselves, or so the theory goes.

    This is where the distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor appears to come from. There are those who are deemed to be poor through no fault of their own and/or whose poverty is unavoidable (the deserving poor), and there are those who are thought (by some) to be entirely responsible for there own predicament, and so presumably could help themselves get out of it if they wanted to (the undeserving poor).

    However there is a third possibility, but it is one that few in society now appear willing to even acknowledge. It is that many of the poor are poor, not because of random chance, or because of their own actions and failings, but because of the actions of others. The poor are poor because the actions of richer people make them poor and keep them poor. If so then the poor are indeed “deserving of compulsory income transfers from those who are working and paying taxes”.

    Nowhere is this phenomenon more apparent than in the current economic crisis. Millions of people have lost jobs and financial security as a result of this recession. Is this because of their own misguided actions? Generally not. Is it all just a consequence of some random event or catastrophe? Absolutely not. It is the result of an economic mess that was caused by others (including bankers, politicians, economic policy makers). And now they (the poor) are expected to suffer the egregious consequences of economic policies that were designed and chosen by others for the benefit of others. Their growing poverty is a direct result of the actions and choices of others. Moreover these choices were not made on their behalf for their benefit, but on behalf of others for other people’s benefit. That is the moral basis for compulsory income transfers.

  2. Posted 14/06/2011 at 14:29 | Permalink

    I would go beyond “what” (they are deserving), for I would query the very use of the word “deserving”. It is one of those subliminally framing words, disingenuous, insidious. Just by consenting to use it, we are enclosed, we are pushed into a synthetic, contrived argument, a false dichotomy.

    Surely the person to decide who should or should not be in receipt of assistance (and “deserving” might not be the criteria) is the individual. We already have a word for this: charity.

  3. Posted 17/06/2011 at 08:12 | Permalink

    @Cantab83: If you and many others really believe this then we are all in much more trouble than we currently think. Poverty has been the default condition of human kind for centuries/millenia – none of it ’caused’ by bankers and financiers. Indeed there is no society in history which hasn’t had a well established banks and financial markets that has escaped from poverty. Many bankers are culpable for the decisions they have made over recent years – and it is true that many of them have been let of the hook by the previaling ‘bail-out’ culture, but it is utter nonsense to suggest they have ’caused’ poverty elsewhere. One might just as well say that if the poor were less poor before the financial crisis this relative affluence was not of their own doing, but was the product of their living in a technologically advanced society – with functioning banks and financial markets.

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