Skip to main content


Claude Fischer, professor of sociology | December 10, 2013

As 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.

sandwich board sign

(Source: AARP)

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 abledo 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 those who were supposed to have “virtue” as contemptuous and saw these needy 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).

Americans 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.

Update, December 10, 2013 (from The Monkey Cage blog):

Just two sentences make Americans as pro-welfare as Danes
By Henry Farrell

“That’s the conclusion of a forthcoming article [pdf] in the Journal of Politics by Lene Aarøe and Michael Bang Petersen. Aarøe and Petersen argue that people’s attitudes to welfare depend on their perceptions of welfare recipients. If they believe that welfare recipients are lazy, they are unlikely to support welfare. If they believe that welfare recipients are making an effort to find work, they are likely to take a different attitude….

“Aarøe and Petersen conducted survey experiments in the United States and Denmark to investigate whether stereotypes shaped Danish and European attitudes. They randomly exposed some participants in both countries to canned information suggesting that a welfare recipient was lazy, others to information suggesting that a welfare recipient was motivated to find work, and others to no substantial information about the recipient. They then asked people to evaluate social welfare benefits.

“On average, Americans were considerably more likely to associate welfare with laziness than Danes. But what’s interesting is that these stereotypes were largely overwhelmed by the canned information when it was available….” When a man is described as a hard worker unemployed by accident, Americans become supportive. Americans and Danes “have different default stereotypes about whether welfare recipients are lazy or unlucky; [and] … these differences in stereotypes create differences in support for welfare benefits…”

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American Life from American History.

Comments to “Deservingness

  1. No mention of Washington DC? The ultimate in professional self-preservation at the cost of every single American and those who want to come to this country.

    We are carrying a $17 trillion dollar debt that promises to grow with the aging of America and faulty legislation that serves one group — our elected. These are the ultimate loafers. Washington DC is one big couch on which this country’s architects of disaster are eating cheese puffs and watching themselves on C-SPAN.

  2. I tend to look on the issue of deserts with a great deal of suspicion. I myself did not elect to be born with my intelligence, nor to parents who instilled in me particular values, nor to be born in the only very brief time in the history of the world where a person from a poor family could obtain a good college education, nor to be born in a land where my security was relatively assured, nor to be born of a race that was privileged. All of these things have led me to a secure and bountiful life. I must also admit that I have not exploited these graces to the extent that a truly virtuous and industrious person might have. In fact I am very grateful that I have not received all that I deserve. For it seems that I deserve much less than I have received.
    In most cultures and for millennium the wisest and most revered men have encouraged us to be generous and charitable. To quote one, “If you cannot be wise, be good, if you cannot good be generous.” I believe that they extolled us to be charitable not only for the benefit of the unfortunate but because it is good for us to be generous.
    It is interesting that Rep. Cramer selected the words of Paul who after all was writing to a particular group of people under particular circumstances (Thessalonians 3:11). One might think that the words of Jesus would take precedence in the minds of those who share Cramer’s faith. I will be charitable to the unfortunate Representative Cramer it is his misfortune that he seized upon the words of Paul By doing so he has placed himself amongst the goats (Mathew 32-46). He could have seized upon so many words that would have better served him and our nation such as “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

  3. One thing that I find interesting is that, simultaneous to the disdain that we carry for the “undeserving poor”, there is an adulation of the “socialite” lifestyle. We do not seem to have a problem with the idea that some people, not only do not work, but are able to live extravagant lives based on the labors/ efforts of others. On the one hand there is the protestant work ethic, on the other, there is a kind of worship of the “royal” classes. Do we really have a disdain for “laziness” (if what we mean by lazy is a person who does not support themselves through their own efforts) if we can idealize a person like Paris Hilton? Why is the idleness of the children or spouses of the uber-wealthy (especially when we consider that this wealth is often under-girded by under-paid labor) more acceptable than idleness among the poor or working classes? As you begin to point out, we (as workers and tax payers) actually pay more for the welfare given to the richest segment of our population through tax breaks, corporate bailouts, and government and non-profit support to the under-paid workers whose cheap labor contribute to large profit margins. I’m all for people working and I think that most people want to do work that is adequately valued and allows them to support their families. When we are watching the shenanigans of the “real housewives” or the opulence of million dollar weddings, etc. we need to remember that this excessive wealth is reliant upon the existence of a permanent underclass. If we are going to support a society that glorifies $500 hamburgers then we cannot simultaneously begrudge those who are stuck in that underclass a few dollars for milk and bread. The percentage of “loafers” is too insignificant to be used as a bludgeon to stereotype and penalize all people who are poor.

  4. Just a note to professors, please have someone proof read your articles/papers before submission.
    This article has a few mistakes which disrupt the flow.
    I had a professor in charge of my thesis and the arguments and support therein, but his own claims and arguments, had no existing support.
    That was from a prof with a Harvard degree.
    Please uphold the call for academic excellence.
    No offense to Dr.Fischer, it happens.

Comments are closed.