Deserving and Undeserving Poor; How to have more unemployment; We want jobs.

View 711 Thursday, February 02, 2012

Ground Hog Day


I had a lunch appointment with Larry and Mike Niven today. We were going to talk about how to save the country, Of course this would be in a book, but we try to make our books realistic, Mike’s very smart, and I was looking forward to it, but when I woke up my cold was much worse and I had to call Mike and cancel it. My cold was bad yesterday, but it’s far worse today. Thursday nights I usually go to LASFS, tonight I’ll stay home and miserate.


Now that Romney’s at the top of the polls as predicted Republican nominee, everything he says is subject to deep scrutiny in the hopes of finding something that can be made to look stupid. Today they think they found one. Romney was trying to indicate that he’s mostly concerned about the American Middle Class, and in the course of saying that he said that he wasn’t worried about the Poor because we have a safety net, and the Very Rich can take care of themselves; what’s needed is government attention to the Middle Class. No sooner had he said it than the drum beats began about how callous and awful Romney is, and this just shows, and you can fill in the rest at leisure. Romney could have taken this opportunity to come out with a real discussion about the role of government in eliminating poverty and for that matter about what government ought to be doing regarding the Middle Class. Instead he went a bit squishy, and lost the opportunity.

What’s needed is a discussion of poverty: how to get more of it, how to get less of it, and what government ought to do about it. After that, we need a discussion about the role of government in boosting the Middle Class. In both cases there are conservative and liberal policies and attitudes, and they’re important.


We all know how to get more poverty. That’s elementary. If you want more of something subsidize it. If you want people to be poor, pay people to be poor. It’s simple, it’s effective, and it has been demonstrated year after year. Make poverty pleasant. Give the poor a right to other people’s money. It works every time, and the larger the subsidy – the transfer of money from those who have it to those who don’t – the more people you will have apply for the position of being poor for a living.

Of course that sounds callous. After all, surely there are people who are in poverty through no fault of their own. There are widows and orphans. There are people who have no skills and aren’t likely to learn any. These are the classical “deserving poor”. Nearly everyone agrees they ought to be taken care of. Nearly every religion requires those who can to help the poor, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give drink to the thirsty, care for the sick, and so forth, and for much of the history of the US all these religious commands have been assumed to be obligations of the state. We have had poor laws since Elizabethan times (and before for that matter.) And in general all of the poor laws were directed toward aiding ‘the deserving poor.

The deserving poor might be given alms and tithe money as well as food and shelter. Every parish in England and Wales was required to have officials who raised money and distributed it. Of course England had an Established Church in those days, and much of this activity was done by the local churchwardens. It wasn’t generally pleasant, and might be both incompetent and corrupt – think of the Beadle in Oliver Twist – but not always. Some Rectors and Vicars took their duties seriously. But this was all for The Deserving Poor.

Then there was the Undeserving Poor. There were several subclasses of undeserving poor. At the top were those who were generally honest and law abiding but did not work although work might be available, which is to say, they considered the wages offered to be too low, or they just didn’t want to work at all. They might be lazy or they might be drunks. They were people who “ought” to be working, but were not working. This group of undeserving poor generally got fed in soup kitchens and almshouses, and perhaps found shelter. Much of the aid to them was also given by churches and charities, not necessarily the Established Church. There were also evangelical groups like the Salvation Army (see Shaw’s Major Barbara) which tried to convert undeserving poor to deserving poor.

Other Undeserving poor were aggressive beggars, petty thieves — but surely the point is made.

Both law and morality said that there was a class of people, the Deserving Poor, who ought to be taken care of through taxation including some pretty aggressive demands from churchwardens intended to shame those who had into giving something for those in need. The principle was established that the state could and should take from the productive and give it to the unproductive because they needed it. Lyndon Johnson spoke of taking from those who have so much and giving it to the have-nots who need it so much.

Over time the distinction between Deserving and Undeserving Poor was lost or at least faded into the background, and more and more attention was given to not being “judgmental”, and to making it less unpleasant to be poor and on the dole. Moreover, the distinction between insurance programs such as unemployment insurance and worker’s compensation vs. straight out giveaways such as Food Stamps and rent supplements tended to disappear. The Americans With Disabilities Act made alcoholism and drug addiction disabilities.

Food Stamps were converted to a debit cards in part to avoid embarrassment. I needn’t belabor the point. We’ve all seen the results.

And one result was increasing numbers of undeserving poor being treated as deserving poor.

We now have a system in which those who have are required to share it with those who have not, even if the have not is someone able to work but satisfied with what comes from not working.

If you want more of something, subsidize it. If you want more people to be in a certain condition, pay them to be in that condition and make it less unpleasant to be in that condition. If you want more poverty pay people to be paupers. If you want more unemployment, pay people to be unemployed.


There’s another way to increase unemployment. The simple formula is make it more expensive to employ someone. Raise the minimum wages. Make it harder and harder to fire people. Give people with some conditions various protections and rights. Make it expensive enough to hire someone and potential employers will do without.

While you are at it, heap calumny on certain jobs. Make it shameful to be a domestic servant and make it despicable to hire one. That way you will eliminate a class of jobs that once employed millions. Of course that may be a goal. Apparently we are more willing to send an armed tax collector to take money and give it to the unemployed than to suggest that the unemployed work as footmen, maids, cooks, and gardeners. That may be a very good thing; but surely it is worth discussion. Romney spoke of a safety net, and how if it is defective it ought to be repaired. Are those who consider domestic service or other jobs they consider unpleasant or demeaning deserving or undeserving poor? Or have we given up that distinction and now consider that anyone who is in poverty is deserving of money taken by the tax collector?

Raise the costs of hiring people. Make it less unpleasant to be unemployed and in poverty. You will in due season reap the fruits of what you have sowed.


The question is whether there is any obligation to have a safety net, and if so, is that an obligation of the states or the Federal government; and just where in the Constitution is the authorization to use tax money to transfer from the haves to the have-nots who need it so much. It may all be in there and this may be the way for the nation to go, but surely it ought to be discussed openly, not just done by degrees?

It might be interesting to have the candidates debate just what ought to be done about that safety net. There may be more of it than we need, and it may be provided by the wrong people. Perhaps this is one more item to be left to the states.


Today in Sacramento there was a rally of people, many college students, chanting “We want jobs”. They were demonstrating in favor of a “high speed rail” line to run between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Initially put forth as a bond issue for $9 Billion which passed, nothing has actually been built and the cost is now estimated at well over $100 Billion. A lot of money has been spent. Nothing has been built. No one is quite sure how the rail line would cope with the San Andreas Fault and the mountainous area between Los Angeles and San Francisco, and the steep slopes down into the San Joaquin known as The Grapevine are pretty formidable. No matter how fast the rail line, it will take a lot longer to get from LA to San Francisco by train as opposed to flying. There are nearly hourly flights from Burbank and LAX.

We Want Jobs. You pay for them.


I note that I haven’t said anything about what the government ought to do to help the Middle Class. Sorry.

The answer, of course, is not much. Mostly, get out of the way. Get out of the way of development of cheap energy. Stop making it expensive to hire people and complicated to impossible to fire them. Repeal a lot of regulations. It’s really not all that complicated.

A wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.
Thomas Jefferson




Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.