ES_homeless-family-in-carAs we approach the “Season of Giving,” when Americans are particularly inclined by the Christmas spirit – and also by the looming deadline for tax-deductible contributions – to share with the needy, we again consider the American way of helping the poor.

This time last year, I noted some of the peculiarities of the American way of private charity: how arbitrary it can be, how dependent on the tastes of individual givers, how much it is a matter of noblesse oblige rather than human rights. A post a couple of years before that pointed out that government care for the unfortunate has been grudging and judgmental going back to colonial times, although it became more expansive over the generations.

Here, I focus on Americans’ distinctive principle that needy recipients must be deserving of help, on our disdain for The Undeserving Poor (the title of Michael Katz’s important historical study.)

The impetus for this post is the dust-up, at least in the liberal blogosphere (e.g. here), around a comment by Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) on food stamps. When challenged on Facebook by a constituent to defend the Christian morality of his vote for cutting the program, Cramer’s posted reply was to cite 2 Thessalonians 3:10: “For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.”

Cramer also asked, “When did America become a country where working for benefits is no longer noble?” Whatever the substantive concerns around the food stamp program (e.g., here) and whatever the facts about recipients working – by far most of the able do indeed work – a question arises: Why do we care if they work?

Moral calculations

Maybe we care because able-bodied people who choose not to work and still take food stamps are ripping off the rest us. They are. Yet, what these relatively few Americans are costing us is surely a lot less than the cost to us of Americans who take benefits and do work.

Consider the many people who work for cash under the table, like the guy on permanent disability who fixes cars in his yard or the single mother on welfare who styles hair in her apartment. Add to them the small business owners who hide income from the IRS in sales that do not get rung up at the cash register and who pad the expenses. (An acquaintance of mine once mentioned in passing that he was buying toilet paper for his home but, of course, mixing that in with the TP he bought for his office, so that he could deduct all of it from his taxes.)

And then, there is the Wall Street version of eating at the public trough – megabucks more. The point is not that any one of these groups is more or less sinful than the others, but that Americans mainly get riled up by the first group, the loafers. And there is some evidence that we have gotten more riled up about “laziness” in recent decades.

This reaction seems to be about more than just money and cheating. The loafers are violating a core American principle: Individuals are supposed to be self-reliant. (See earlier posts here and here).

Back at the nation’s founding, the term “virtue” also meant being financially independent. Anybody lacking such independence was either legitimately dependent – a child, slave, indentured servant, a respectable woman such as a widow, a sober man disabled through no fault of his own, and so on – or was derelict and immoral. Early Americans viewed the dependency of those who were supposed to have “virtue” as contemptuous and saw them as undeserving of help. Growing concentrations of the poor during the turmoil of the Revolutionary era further drained city funds for public assistance and spurred further hostility to those deemed “undeserving.”

Theological Variations

Historian J. Richard Olivas has argued (here) that New England ministers shifted their explanations of why people were poor in the decades leading up to the Revolution. Earlier doctrines that someone’s poverty was God’s inscrutable, unquestionable, and unavoidable plan gave way to ideas of individual responsibility.

A publication of 1752, “The Idle-Poor Secluded from the Bread of Charity,” drew on that same verse in Paul’s Second Epistle to the Thessalonians, to argue that people could choose to avoid God’s punishment of poverty by being industrious. The poor, then, were guilty of squandering God’s openness and, by their “idleness,” had brought the punishment of poverty on themselves. Sinful, they were to be “Secluded from the Bread of Charity.”

About the same time, Benjamin (early to rise; a penny saved; etc.) Franklin inserted in his Poor Richard’s Almanack an aphorism most Americans today consider to be biblical – God helps them who helps themselves – but is actually an edit of a pagan Greek aphorism: “the gods help those….” (see, e.g., herehere).

Although I am far from expert, it appears that biblical admonitions to help the poor, 2 Thessalonians aside (and that line has alternative interpretations), are strikingly, especially to an American, free of any conditions on the recipients.

God expects us to help the poor no matter their work ethic. For example, Isaiah 57:7, “Share your bread with the hungry,”and Matthew 25:40, “Just as you did it [feed and clothe] to one of the least of these . . ., you did it to me,” are blunt demands. No proof of job-seeking required (much less any drug testing).

claude fischerAmericans are, it seems, more irritated by loafers getting benefits than are people in other world cultures and even other westerners (e.g., herehere). I, too, bristle at such cases, even while recognizing that they are far fewer than most Americans imagine and they cost far less than other rip-offs. Still, it is worth pausing to wonder why we Americans care so much about such deservingness.

Claude Fischer
The Berkeley Blog


  1. Yayas says

    This article captures very nicely the mind-set of the seniors I work with who live on $400-700 a month and refuse to sign up for food stamps because its welfare.

  2. BBunsen says

    I’m trying to imagine the “deservedness” involved when Mitt Romney and others in the financial industry receive the benefit of a 15% tax rate on most of their income.

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