The “Undeserving” Poor

Homelessness is a “hot topic” right now, and opinions on the subject appear daily in the papers, online discussion groups and in the coffee shop. In any given conversation the two (or more) sides are often really addressing different aspects of a complex problem. To arrive at any agreement we must first know whether we are trying to end homelessness itself, for instance, or to help those currently homeless, or to clean up the streets and feel safer. Each of these problems will suggest a different kind of solution. 

We also have to acknowledge that poverty is a positive feedback loop. In this case positive is not a good thing. It means that the poorer a person gets, the harder it becomes for them to pull themselves out of poverty. Once you are homeless, life becomes increasingly difficult, and the slope is slippery. In this respect our society is unique among organisms (for society is in fact an organism). All other organisms are self-healing. When an organism detects that some part is ailing, it sends more resources to that part to help it get better. If we injure our bodies, blood flow is increased to the injured area. Our society, on the other hand, reacts to ailing members by withholding resources from them. 

The aspect I would like to address here is the issue of what are sometimes called the undeserving poor. There are very few people who would deny that a great many poor people got that way through no fault of their own, and most have no problem with helping these people. Where the disagreement comes is when people see what they see as “their” money being used to help people who, in their estimation, are poor either through some personal failing or through criminal behavior. They even claim that homelessness is a lifestyle choice for some, and that they do not even want to be helped.

Let us deal with this last contention first, as it is relatively simple. First the homeless population has a higher than average incidence of mental illness, which can cause people to express views and preferences that are not in their own self-interest. It is sometimes said that if being crazy didn’t make you homeless, being homeless would make you crazy. These people need a special kind of help, and their views should not be taken as representative of the majority of homeless people.

Others may refuse the kind of help that is offered for a number of quite valid reasons. It may not be the kind of help that is in fact helpful. For instance, food that needs preparation or must be consumed on the spot may not be useful to them at the time it is offered. Shelters have very restrictive rules about when you have to be out in the morning and what time you can get there in the evening, which may not be practicable for them. They may be hard for them to get to and from. There are countless reasons why someone might not be able to accept the particular form of help offered. This does not mean that there is no possible form of help that would be genuinely useful to them, or that they would reject it if offered. 

It is well nigh impossible to truly understand someone’s situation if you have not experienced it. There is a French expression that translates to “to understand all is to forgive all.” If you could truly know what is was to be that person, you would understand why they were where they are. All of us are the products of our genetics and our environment, neither of which was under our control. We talk of people making bad choices, but what does this really mean? We make choices based on our assessment of what will benefit us. If our assessment tools or our concept of what is in fact beneficial to us are faulty, it is because we are basing them on faulty information. Conversely people who have succeeded have almost universally had someone in their life who has given them good guidance.

Furthermore, what are these bad choices, anyway? Often this turns out to be code for drug taking. This carries several questionable assumptions. First of all poor people cannot afford to buy enough drugs to cause them much harm. A truly debilitating drug habit is very expensive. Homeless people take drugs, certainly, but usually only enough to take the edge off their misery. 

So maybe it was a drug habit that impoverished them in the first place. Using this as a reason to blame them for their situation and refuse help is to say that drug habituation is a moral defect that deserves punishment (in this case the punishment of being deprived of shelter and rejected by society.) Yet if drug habituation is a moral defect this would condemn a large percentage of the population, most of whom are habituated to some drug or more than one. We have not been able to identify any society in history that did not use mind altering substances.

If we are to rationalize refusal to help someone who has fallen on hard times, surely the only acceptable reason is that it was some moral defect that brought them to this state. If some force outside their control impoverished them, we can hardly in good conscience refuse help. Neither can we reasonably condemn them for making stupid decisions. Intelligence, or the ability to make wise decisions, is not evenly distributed in the population. Certainly we can learn to make the best of what we are given, but some are just dealt a weak hand in life. Can we therefore blame them for failing in the system?

So, you might ask, is there no such thing as personal responsibility? Are we to forgive everybody any kind of behavior on the grounds that it was just the way they were brought up? I am not making that argument here; it is a complex topic that deserves its own treatment. What I am saying is that first it is not a helpful standard to apply to the choice of whether or not to help the indigent. People qualify for help because they are in need of it; it is that simple. There are no undeserving poor.