Monday, January 16, 2012

Return Of The Worthy Poor?

While leafing through a university text book for a course in social work, I came across an interesting chapter on the history of charity and the welfare state. The author described and rejected prior efforts to delineate the "worthy poor" from the "unworthy poor." This concept holds that the former are comprised of individuals unable to care for themselves because they were sick, orphaned, elderly, etc. The latter are able bodied individuals whose impoverishment was conceived to stem from their pathological values, habits and choices.

Philanthropists that subscribed to this vision believed that the right to receive assistance was accompanied by the responsibility of the poor to demonstrate their willingness to work. Even progressive reformers and champions of the poor, like Jane Addams, who emphasized "structural factors" in poverty, actively sought to promote middle class values of personal responsibility, self control, sobriety and thrift among the poor families that they assisted. Later generations of reformers and progressives criticized her for this and (what they perceived to be) her efforts to "acculturate" diverse immigrants to America towards white, Anglo-American culture. Many felt that efforts to address the behavior of the poor unjustly "blamed the victim" and distracted from "oppression" and "institutional causes of poverty." Furthermore, if food, housing, health care and child care were "fundamental rights," by definition one could someone be unworthy of them. Many of the architects of the modern welfare state held and actively promoted this worldview, presumably not only on philosophical grounds, but also because government bureaucrats neither had the ability or even the will to intimately interact with recipients of aid as philanthropists had. The unprecedented post war economic boom, from the late 1940's to the 1990's, coupled with the growth of deficit financing allowed for the vast expansion of size and scope of the welfare state and accepted notions of eligibility.

Anyone who follows the news sees that the federal government, as well as most city, state and county governments are facing mounting debt. On a local level this has forced politicians to begin cutting government services, whereas the federal government's capacity to borrow and print money will, for the time being, allow it to avoid austerity measures. I am convinced that growing financial pressures will force governments to not only enact broad budget cuts, but to engage in contentious, but necessary efforts to prioritize the use of limited funds. The public and politicians will have to determine if funds should be directed towards (badly needed) programs for the mentally ill and disabled or towards fraud ridden section-8 housing vouchers. Progressives who wish to prevent the dissolution of the safety net will have to become conscience and critical of the strain that pathological behaviors, such as unchecked single motherhood and sloth place on the system. So, if not in word, at least in practice, limited government resources will force us to determine who is more and who is less worthy of receiving scarce funds. And the much maligned shame and social stigma that welfare dependency engendered may even be promoted as a cost effective means to maintain sustainable levels of participation. This should be viewed not as a "mean spirited condemnation of the less fortunate," but as an exercise in accounting and prioritization that all households and businesses must engage in on a regular basis.

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