Do Poor People Deserve Help?

homeless family

Photo: Myles Rose

It’s not just Republican politicians who are responsible for cutting off government help to poor Americans. It’s also Republican voters.

Everybody recognizes the existence of poverty: Two-thirds of Americans say that the “gap between rich and everyone else has grown,” and the difference between Republicans and Democrats is minimal. But the most conservative Americans don’t want their and our public dollars used to help. About two-thirds of Tea Party Republicans favor cutting unemployment benefitsfood stamps and federal housing programs.

There is a fundamental divide in America, more important than between Republicans and Democrats. It’s between Americans who want to use public assistance to help poor people live a minimally decent life, paid for by all of us through taxes, and those who don’t.

Those who don’t offer a bundle of justifications. Most Republicans believe that hard work alone is the guarantee of success; those who are poor need to work harder. Poverty is their own fault. Too many of the “poor” aren’t poor anyway; they fit the stereotype that Ronald Reagan popularized with invented stories, the “welfare queen”.

Another claim is that the richest nation on earth can’t afford it. Over three-quarters of Republicans believe that “the government today can’t afford to do much more to help the needy.”

A popular conservative line is that government assistance is bad for the poor. Rand Paul said in December that extending unemployment benefits beyond 26 weeks does “a disservice to these workers.” More than 8 in 10 conservative Republicans think that public aid to the poor does more harm than good. By this argument, giving aid makes good Americans into Mitt Romney’s 47%, the moochers who vote for Democrats. Beliefs like these are concentrated in the loudest and angriest section of Republican voters.

What is the responsibility of Republican politicians? They have been pounding these ideas into the heads of anyone who will listen for decades. But their contribution has also been passive and deniable: they let the extremists of popular culture say what they don’t want to say themselves. Rush Limbaugh knows how to get people to listen far better than any elected official. Donald Trump has amassed enormous wealth and thereby media attention by creating a fascinating persona of moneymaker and clown.

Republican leaders encourage these multi-millionaires to sneer at poor people. They let these white men mock minorities. They wink when these men call women “sluts”. John Boehner’s strongest criticism of Limbaugh’s derision of Sandra Fluke, made only through his spokesman two days later, is that it was “inappropriate”. That is a green light for Limbaugh and others to keep talking.

Every time a new Republican president is elected, Limbaugh gets invited to the White House. Ronald Reagan sent Limbaugh a letter thanking him “for all you’re doing to promote Republican and conservative principles … you have become the Number One voice for conservatism in our Country.” Conservative think tanks give him awards. Republican politicians appear on his show, where they talk to him like an old friend.

Donald Trump’s single political idea is that Barack Obama was born in Africa. Would most Republican voters also hold that belief if Republican Party leaders didn’t keep patting Trump on the back and putting their hands in his pockets? During the presidential primaries, Michele Bachmann reacted warmly to the suggestion of Trump as Vice PresidentMitt Romney brought Trump into his campaign in 2012. Trump was a featured speaker at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference, as was Limbaugh before him. Now some New York Republicans in New York want Trump to run against Democrat Andrew Cuomo for governor this year.

Would Trump still have any political credence if the Republican Party itself didn’t keep doubting Obama’s birth certificate? Just a couple of months ago, the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee featured a birther website in its daily web communication.

Poverty is not mostly poor people’s fault. Rich people make bad choices, too – they use drugs, abuse loved ones, have accidents, do poor work, break the laws. But their resources insulate them from the worst economic consequences.

Americans who reject public help for our poor embrace those myths which seem to justify their selfishness. Conservative leaders with ulterior motives let media extremists fan the flames of division by encouraging disdainful ideas about the poor.

steve hochstadtIf everyone followed the example of a first-year class at Illinois College, whose students interviewed Jacksonville’s homeless at the New Directions shelter, they could pierce the convenient stereotypes about American poverty. These students found out that 500 different people were warmed and sheltered over three years of operation at the Grace Methodist Church. They needed help badly, received kindness, respect, and food, and got on with their lives.

Knowledge and mercy can go together to make public policy. Rather than give millions in public funds to the richest American corporations to stay put, we need to help the poorest of our neighbors move up.

Steve Hochstadt
Taking Back Our Lives


  1. Marc says

    Dear Sir / Madam

    How are you doing ? My name is Marcus Anthony D’souza and I am from India and we are all in 6 Members in the family and I am the only earner in the family and I am working very hard for my family, but even though I am earning hardly US$ 150 per month, but it does not suffix my family, I am unable to take utmost care of them and also unable to fulfill their wishes as well as their dreams. Some days come that we have to sleep with just a water.

    I am looking for someone who can at least help me for US$ 45000 to 50000 so that I can take good care of them and also thinking of starting a small business, please I beg you if you can help me.

    I and my family shall be highly grateful and thankful to you for your help.

    Looking forward towards a favourable response from your organisation.


  2. ronwf says

    There are two principles here. The poor deserve help. And adults are responsible for supporting themselves. Those who cannot support themselves deserve support and – for those able to do so – assistance in achieving the ability to support themselves. Those who either can support themselves but won’t put in the effort or those who cannot support themselves and, while able, refuse to attempt to achieve self-reliance should not get assitance.

    • Ryder says

      This is sound reasoning… but that points to a problem. Assistance, to far too many people, automatically means 2 things: – It comes from government, and – you only look at the intent or action (we gave you $300!), and never the result.

      This is a serious problem, in that the government is rather unable to know who actually needs assistance, and then on top of that… even if they do, the government doesn’t address if they are deserving. And finally, it almost never checks to see the result.

      This turns into a magnet for those that have “hidden” income (like drug dealers), who can then get assistance they don’t need… and are ALSO undeserving.

      I know of a few stories of people that got caught cheating disability because they were seen on TV engaging in activities by case workers. (one was my useless cousin… who got free government job training as a computer 3D artist… because he wouldn’t get a job… then after training went on to claim disability instead of working. He was seen on the local TV network playing boccie ball by his case worker).

      This circumstance that lead to him being discovered… is really rare… which means that for every one of him that get caught, there are probably hundreds if not thousands more we don’t know about.

      The resources funneled to him over the years… are resources that COULD have gone to the truly needy.

      Everyone in our family would have known to not support him… but they paid the taxes (under penalty of law) that did.

  3. The Nose says

    Ryder gently mentions an issue nobody wants to discuss – giving poor people [money] won’t change their status as poor and, more significantly, it only addresses the result, not the underlying causes of poverty. Schools need more money sooner in the educational cylce. The 10th grade is too late to find out Johnny can’t read or add. Johnny is going to grow up poor. The poor don’t desrve anything just because they are poor. (BTW, Johhny doesn’t desrve a school breakfast either, his mother should get up half an hour earlier.) The sick, infirm and aged deserve help because they can’t help themselves. Remember Alfred Doolittle’s solliloquy in My Fair Lady about the “underserving poor” of which he was a member?
    What makes this such an easy target for conservatives is the damn deficit. Not even dyed-in-the-wool pinko-commie liberals want to go after social security and they chicken out when confronting the Pentagon. (Explain the threat the F-35 addresses again?) That just leaves poor people. Obama flat out lied during the debates about how health care was going to be paid for so it’s easy to believe the rest of his economic policies are nuanced as well.

  4. Ryder says

    Some statistics can also help.

    After having transferred over 20 *trillion* dollars in means tested government aid… yes, over 20 TRILLION, since the “war on poverty” began, the percent of Americans in poverty has not changed… and in raw numbers has gone up significantly.

    Before the “war on poverty”, poverty was going down about a percent one year to the next.

    Think about the implications.

    The US would have NO DEBT, had it not spent 20 *trillion* to accomplish nothing. No debt means lower taxes. Lower taxes means a better standard of living. Lower taxes mean more internationally competitive business.

    What a horrific price we have paid, to no result.

  5. Ryder says

    Such a poor premise…

    Does a murderer on the run, poor because he can’t stay long enough anywhere to find work, deserve help? He’s poor… right?

    Does a rich man who’s lonely and suicidal after the untimely death of his only child, deserve help?

    Clearly, poverty has nothing directly to do with deserved-ness….

    Deservedness is a value judgement… which can only be made with any accuracy person to person.

    To the careless giver, they may be helping someone that they would otherwise feel to be undeserved.

    If you buy the bottle of booze that kills the drunkard… did you really help her?

    Then to rely on charity is a further hit to one’s self-esteem, so clearly there are negative effects that go along side any potential positive ones.

    I personally know many people with no incomes that took 6 month vacations, tapping part into their savings, plus unemployment benefits… before they ever even started to look for work.

    How does promoting idleness and depletion of savings = helping people?

    The list goes on and on… including entrenched, multi-generational dependency, a new life modality for far, far too many people, that if left to their own devices, would have learned to rely on themselves instead.

    Government help does not sufficiently differentiate the deserving from the undeserved, nor does the “help” it provides, necessarily help at all, and finally, government does not know or check the results of what it has done on an intimate basis. Frankly, it doesn’t care… as long as you vote for the guy that claims to have delivered the benefits.

    Leave determining deservedness to the people that can do the job… those closest to those that may (or may not) be deserving.

    Harming people at great expense is unacceptable.

  6. dusty says

    Of course the poor deserve help. I mean we bailed out the banksters, right. If they deserve help everyone deserves help. In fact I think the rich don’t deserve help and the rest of us do. Yes, I am biased against the rich.

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