I first learned about the history of the “unworthy poor” when I pursued my Master of Social Work degree. I read about the social movements in the early 20th century and how they tended to divide people in need into people whose poverty was outside of their control – for example, widows or orphaned children – who were deemed deserving of help from society; and people whose poverty could be blamed on their own bad decisions or laziness – they were written off as unworthy of assistance, or the unworthy poor. The implication in the history books was that this bias was a thing of the past.
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At Princeton Seminary, in a theology class on the life and writings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I came across this same assertion that the American ethos about people in poverty had changed. In Dr. King’s Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community, he writes of the attitudes in the early 20th century:
“At that time economic status was considered the measure of the individual’s ability and talents… the absence of worldly goods indicated a want of industrious habits and moral fiber… We have come a long way in our understanding of human motivation and of the blind operation of our economic system. Now we realize that dislocations in the market operation of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant or frequent unemployment against their will. The poor are less often dismissed from our conscience today by being branded as inferior and incompetent.”
King’s analysis is spot on in terms of poverty being largely caused by an economy that doesn’t provide full employment. But his belief that America had progressed beyond its perception of an unworthy poor was inaccurate.
I have been studying and working in the field of social work for nearly twenty years, and I have seen the unworthy poor resurrected time and again in debates about what America should do about poverty. My college sociology classes in the late 1990s coincided with the implementation of a sweeping welfare reform bill that focused on “personal responsibility.” My grad school days saw appeals from “compassionate conservatives” that social services should be left to the churches and non-profits that they claimed were better equipped to help people change their lives.
Then, in my first social work placement, I encountered firsthand the consequences of the belief that social policies should punish struggling people for their “poor decisions.” I remember two young mothers, each with a child and no source of income. They turned to our county welfare program for help to meet their children’s basic needs. Both mothers received a small monthly cash grant, but they were denied emergency housing assistance because each had “caused her own homelessness” as determined by the welfare office. In desperation, they moved in with new boyfriends, neither of whom were willing to use birth control. The result was unwanted pregnancies. The response from the system was horrifying: these unborn children would receive no help from the state because their mothers had gotten pregnant while receiving cash assistance. The insidious narrative of the “welfare queen” left no room to consider their circumstances or their desperation.
Now, more than a decade into my career in social justice advocacy, I have grown accustomed to social policy proposals being based on the assumption that people experience poverty because of their own failures. For example, when national leaders rail against the nation’s largest anti-hunger program and slash its funding in the name of reducing “dependency”—a dependency that in fact doesn’t exist—they are really saying that people in poverty are lazy and should be forced to fend for themselves. It is still acceptable, even popular, to ascribe moral weakness to people in poverty rather than to examine the economic and social structures that hold them there.
Despite Dr. King’s overestimation of progress in attitudes towards the poor, his core message remains relevant today: Only when we change a system that traps so many Americans in a struggle to meet their basic needs will we create an economy defined by opportunity and the chance for anyone to thrive.