Giving up the 'deserving' and 'undeserving' poor dichotomy

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The PWE (Charity’s Plimsoll line, or the heartless bastard’s chorus)

He who would not work, may he then not eat. / If at labour he would waver may he then not eat! / He who seeks to shirk, may he then not eat. / May his hunger be unbounded, appetite unsated, / lest he despise the working life and strain by him be hated. / He who would not sweat, may he then not eat, / who will not action beget — may he then not eat. / He who wills to slothful be, may he then not eat. / He who stays abed from indifference or conceit — / may such a one be empty, his gullet ne’er replete. / Mercy oft is granted in cases truly known, / but none will line the stomach of one lazy to the bone. — Barry Gittins

 

When I penned this bit of satirical doggerel last century I was taking the mickey out of St Paul (Thessalonians 3:10). Or, more fairly perhaps, cocking a snook at those who seized on the tough-love, tentmaking apostle’s words by drawing a line between those experiencing poverty who deserved help and those who were demonised as unworthy. Paul’s first century CE words are still sporadically cited by conservatives to target, minimise or eradicate welfare payments, especially in the United States.

Main image: Two well-dressed people eating all the food on the table while a mother and son have nothing on their plate. In the middle a pudding cut in half. Writing on the plate reads: 'He who would not work, may he then not eat'. Illustration Chris Johnston

Sociologist Max Weber famously connected the dots in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, with one recent translation introducing material success as a ‘sign’ of ‘being one of the elect… The accumulation of wealth was morally sanctioned in so far as it was combined with a sober, industrious career; wealth was condemned only if employed to support a life of idle luxury or self-indulgence.’

Realistically? Captains of industry often achieve that rank riding on their earthly daddy’s coattails, regardless of theological notions of ‘moral sanction’. Forget meritocracy in realpolitik; the neoliberal presentation of the affluent as masters of their fates is a furphy that ignores intergenerational wealth, a tax system designed to protect them from fiscal fluctuations and a society that expects them to get second, third and fourth chances when things go bung (Harvey Norman’s feasting at the Jobkeeper table comes to mind).

We are all beholden to our story of origin and the systemic realities we are born into. Regardless, now and historically, politicians, preachers and pundits sporadically look to reintroduce the discredited dichotomy between the ‘deserving poor and the undeserving poor’. The embodiment of that second label, historically, has been the Jobseeker (Newstart) recipient.

 

'Not only is it not our place to judge who is deserving or the undeserving poor, it is not in our capability — or seemingly our governments’ — to do so either.'

 

For better or worse, US culture and politics often exercise a tidal pull on Oz, no more weirdly perhaps than in the Pentecostal ‘prosperity gospel’ ethos that can be said to inform our national sport of punishing the poor. There is an ill-adjusted but pervasive stance afoot in Oz, alluded to in Erik Jensen's 2019 Quarterly Essay, ‘The Prosperity Gospel: How Scott Morrison Won and Bill Shorten Lost’, that God smiles on those who succeed — Jensen believes the PM’s worldview ‘fuses prosperity with virtue’.

Theologically and illogically speaking, it follows for the punishers of the poor that if you are doing it tough it must be because you are not in the Deity’s good books. (The poverty of Jesus Christ as an unemployed itinerant rabbi, a tradie who chose not to labour during his three-year ministry, gets conveniently overlooked.) However, no less an authority than Dorothy Day has declared that ‘the Gospel takes away our right, forever, to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor’. Sadly, we don’t bend to the light of Day here in Oz.

The miserly remittance we extend to people trapped in poverty is too minute to sustain life, or to allow people to escape poverty. The Australian Association of Social Workers pointed out that much late last year. That extends to multiple generations as the burdens of the fathers or mothers are inherited as the burdens of the sons or daughters: ‘A poverty trap is pervasive, and will often cause generational poverty as often times a cycle forms and breaking it is incredibly difficult.’

Pre-COVID-19 there was always political capital to be made from slapping the label of undeserving onto Newstart recipients, and trimming away the slim social safety net. Writing for Probono, founder and editor of WomanGoingPlaces Augustine Zycher wrote that, ‘There was a deliberate campaign to devalue and humiliate the people on Newstart as dole-bludgers who needed to be drug tested.’ Viewing the likely and eventual cutting of JobSeeker, with her particular emphasis on the systemic inequities women face, Zycher added there 'are now too many "deserving poor" to re-classify them as "undeserving poor"'. But perhaps the real drug we need to test for is the need to demonise people. Can we give up that addiction?

COVID-19 has stripped many of us of jobs, income, stability, comfort. All of us have lost the unthinking security of taking our health for granted. But the temporary increase in Jobseeker allowances has been reversed. The federal government and those who voted it in still use the deserving/undeserving framework by leaving lost jobs lost, and impacted families and individuals without sustainable support. While the unemployment rate has dropped of late, the ABC noted this was ‘because the number of people looking for work dropped significantly’.

Eureka Street’s readers doubtless know how flawed, unjust, judgmental and condescending that 19th century terminology is; ‘deserving poor’ and ‘undeserving poor’. I remain unconvinced that rank and file ’Straya recognises this; which is why attempts at satire are often taken literally.

Every morning as I walk the last stretch to work, down Melbourne’s Bourke Street from Parliament station, I see a handful of people sleeping on the cold footpaths, on benches or in shuttered doorways.

There is some provision for these rough sleepers I walk past. I see that daily, working for the Salvos at Melbourne Project 614. But we lack the power to change our society’s structure; to incline our fellows’ hearts towards kindness.

There is, self-evidently, a tipping point between independent self-reliance and being crushed by systemic inequity and disadvantage. Not only is it not our place to judge who is deserving or the undeserving poor, it is not in our capability — or seemingly our governments’ — to do so either.

The issue is not throwing stones or pretending these people do not exist. The issue at hand, mid-pandemic, is helping them preserve and then fully reclaim their lives. We have a choice to make as a society — we can recognise that needs must; that people fall on hard times, or are pushed; they end up in misery beyond their own capacity to recover unaided and unrecognised. Or we can play judge, choosing to delineate between those we believe deserve our compassion, our charity and tax dollar-based support. And those who do not. The latter choice provides a slippery slope.

 

 

Barry GittinsBarry Gittins is a Melbourne writer.

Main image: Illustration Chris Johnston

Topic tags: Barry Gittins, Jobkeeper, Jobseeker, deserving poor, undeserving poor

 

 

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I'm fairly sure St Paul was writing about sloth (one of the Catholic seven capital sins) in reference to reluctance to work or make an effort rather than the slow-moving tropical American mammal. The tough-loving, tentmaking apostle feared idle hands being the devil's workshop. I'm hesitant to describe our current age as being more enlightened. Undoubtedly there are many factors at work: intergenerational trauma, mental health issues and a society dominated by the economy (not God's economy). Reclaiming lives (and we all fit into that category) is the business of each one of us. And attempting to judge an order of business would be most uncharitable. Didn't the tentmaking apostle have something unforgettable to say about 'charity'?


Pam | 29 June 2021  

An excellently written poignant critique of the disparities encompassing the filthy rich and the entrenched humbly poor Barry. This article clearly defines how wealth is disproportionately distributed and that intergenerational classist financial privilege and opportunities still remain out of reach for most of society's minions. Ironically it is those with fiscal stability which take centre stage in the media circus with caviar melancholic imbued lachrymose audaciously sharing to those with less prosperity how difficult Covid 19 has affected their portfolio profits and celebrity narcissism claiming "We are all in this together" puffery. The haut monde panoramic view from above is far different from the street view below. Not to fret, as the majority of inhabitants on this globe can find snuggly comfort serenity in the new testament gospel in the Matthew 5.5 scripture-"The meek shall inherit the earth". Should one be so inclined, I surmise most may have to check with the rest of queue waiting for heavenly manna first... This was a wonderfully thought out articulated instalment. Thank you Barry.


Jamie Dawe | 29 June 2021  

Few of us don't play the role of judge in some manner; perhaps the last paragraph inadvertently demonstrates that the good intentions to help those who we perceive poor are an extension of the examination of circumstantial evidence that the needy person is not like "us"; perhaps as much of a drug as the need to demonise them is the addictive narcotic to change them into someone they are not or cannot be. The unprescribed hit of dopamine the charitable get when they intervene to aid to "fully reclaim their lives..." and make them more like us. Rehabilitated. Would we equally advocate to change the lifestyles of those living "on country" or who seek solitude to (re)join our rat race that as often as not we ourselves fail to cope without some anxiety or depression? Welcome to our world. Given the real barriers to opportunity, despite laws to the contrary, age, race, sex, physical or mental health and appearances perpetuate a sub-class of have-nots who necessarily allow the middle classs to feel better about themselves. Compassion and empathy, yes... and enough resources to regain the level of dignity they choose - which just may be to remain itinerant or sleep rough.


ray | 30 June 2021  

As you quite rightly point out Barry, our thinking on social welfare and inclusion is way, way out of date. We will never, I hope, go down the American way, but there are certainly would-be Thatcherites here who believe there is no such thing as society and it's every person for themselves as we all attempt to climb the greasy pole of success. Denmark has a much better solution. Benefits and training are much, much better funded. They are tough though, if you attempt to buck the system. If you are capable of working, you must do so,


Edward Fido | 30 June 2021  

Another stunning piece, Barry, with a suitably eviscerating endorsement from Jamie Dawe. My take is that the concept of deserts - just or otherwise - should be drill-blasted out of human consciousness some two centuries after the smug Victorians invented it and a mere half-century or so since Thatcher reprised it. In God's eyes we are surely, none of us, ever and at all deserving but, counter-intuitively, impossibly and ineffably loved. Our most primary responsibility, it would seem, is surely to bask in that love before sharing it with the so-called least-deserving.


Michael Furtado | 30 June 2021  

Yes, Barry - the Ayn Rand mindset should remain where it belongs: in fiction.


John RD | 30 June 2021  

Thanks Barry for your excellent article pointing out the exploitive neoliberal society. And a thankyou to Eureka for prominently displaying it. It adds to the growing demand for ending it. To achieve that end it is necessary to examine it. To achieve this goal we need to know how neoliberalism achieved it's dominance how Thatcherism gained power in Australia. Society has become more dependent on technology to produce society's needs. A reduced labour has reduced union membership the important constraint to capitalist greed was lost. The lost union power has led to an opportunist Labor Party that introduced the privatising of the people's estate. Disbanding their founding platform and adopting the core policy of neoliberalism.


Reg Wilding | 30 June 2021  

While there is no excuse for flagrant overspending by the rich, the well dressed person in a restaurant may well have given to the poor very generously either in person or through one of the many organisations dedicated to helping those in need.


Mary Samara-Wickrama | 01 July 2021  

You make a wry point in favour of justice, Mary, in reminding us of the expression 'as cold as charity'.


Michael Furtado | 02 July 2021  

Michael Furtado: “reminding us of the expression 'as cold as charity'”, which, of course, is a dodgy expression resulting from a pun on the Latin for love. Matthew 24:12 is the origin of the phrase and speaks only of evil increasing in the world and, as a result, the love of God of many decreasing. That’s what happens when you distort the canonical original meaning or, if you like, the magisterium, of the language. Nonsense results but sometimes the nonsense can randomly make sense. Yes, good deeds can be done without love just to get the panhandler out of your hair but it’s only a random coincidence that, in English, perfunctory philanthropy can grammatically be associated with perfunctory charity. In Greek, love (agapi) returns a different word from charity (filanthropia). A lucky pun.


roy chen yee | 03 July 2021  

Australians have been subjected, unwittingly, to 'szalami tactics' slice by slice to introduce/maintain radical right libertarian socio-economic ideology joined at the hip with eugenics, and cruelty (much of it is bipartisan). This has been imported from the US GOP and related infrastructure of influence i.e. Koch Network think tanks 'public choice theory', Friedman, Rand, Buchanan et al., but based upon dour Scottish Calvinist Christianity and preservation of power developed by Smith et al. and Galton, as grounded theory and science, still promoted e.g. the nebulous 'trickle down effect'. One would add they are also very clever in motivating or scaring ageing, less educated, often regional and monocultural electors on sociocultural issues, promoted via legacy media, while (burgeoning cohort of) retirees' economic interests are protected by minimum retirement income super and/or pension, public services and Medicare. Ironically, the latter are all in the sights of radical right libertarians in the LNP etc. for nobbling and restrictions, but for following generations..... using 'pensioner populism' to create compliant gerontocracy, god help the younger generations.....


Andrew J. Smith | 04 July 2021  

A clever pun, too Roy, but, as Andrew J. Smith illustrates - streets ahead of me, I'm happy to say - a deceptive and therefore an obtuse one. I don't begrudge Mary her well-dressed, by which was surely intended 'ostentatious' philanthropist. who errs on the side of charity rather than justice. Indeed, I happen to think we need both. However her point raises the issue of proportionality with a policy change likely to deliver more just outcomes than the largesse extended by an exceptional individual (and thereby proving the point of this article) regardless of their attire. Its a bit like your Santamarian point about rejecting public funding for Catholic schools: you have yet to answer my question about what the dickens the nation state is doing both funding a school education for all citizens from public money (a good thing) and controlling what's taught through doing so (which is surely not what the magisterium teaches on the basis of the subsidiarity principle).


Michael Furtado | 05 July 2021  

Michael Furtado: ‘philanthropist who errs on the side of charity rather than justice.’ A ‘philanthropist’ (better called ‘entrepreneur’) ‘fights’ poverty by creating economically self-sustaining jobs (ie., jobs which create, to use a Marxian term, ‘surplus value’) and lets the workers do the charity thing. The only reason he has to do the charity thing himself is that his income keeps outgrowing his ability to invest in new employment opportunities so, eventually, whether he likes it or not, the free cash just builds up with interest. He would give personally but it’s a lot of work to choose donees; better, a foundation so his time isn’t tied. At that stage, too, the ratio probably shifts in balance of giving away as the extra income isn’t going to be creating very many more jobs (the marginal principle). Even if he hangs on to all of his surplus income (stupid, because of lost PR value), he still deserves his knighthood or OA or whatever, the criticism that rich folk shouldn’t receive public awards being, essentially, a petty bit of envy, the award really being for the jobs he has created. Change the name to ‘entrepreneur’ and the erring moves to justice.


roy chen yee | 06 July 2021  

Indeed, Roy; I wholeheartedly agree with that! And what about the subsidiarity principle as it applies to school provision? Why should state or private sector corporatism take precedence over 'parents-as-first-educators' school management and choice in the matter of handling public education money? After all we live in an increasingly post-statist economy and universe.


Michael Furtado | 07 July 2021  

Michael Furtado: ‘what the dickens the nation state is doing both funding a school education for all citizens from public money (a good thing) and controlling what's taught through doing so (which is surely not what the magisterium teaches on the basis of the subsidiarity principle).’ ‘Why should state or private sector corporatism take precedence over 'parents-as-first-educators' school management and choice in the matter of handling public education money?’ What do parents know about STEM? Subsidiarity for the secular curriculum is probably with the Education Department. What do parents know about doctrinal truth? Subsidiarity for what RE should be teaching is with the Church. John Frawley mentioned something recently about parents as first examples. I presume that means not being the source of Truth but modelling what has come down to them.


roy chen yee | 08 July 2021  

Surely mere 'modelling' as you describe it is heaps bigger than that, Roy? The Church can prescribe and proscribe till its blue in the face. The efflorescence of true virtue lies undoubtedly in living it (i.e. Praxis). Parents are First Educators and we should never ever forget the Primary Responsibility - to be exemplars! - that they have.


Michael Furtado | 09 July 2021  

Michael Furtado: ‘Surely mere 'modelling' as you describe it is heaps bigger than that, Roy? The Church can prescribe and proscribe till its blue in the face. The efflorescence of true virtue lies undoubtedly in living it (i.e. Praxis). Parents are First Educators and we should never ever forget the Primary Responsibility - to be exemplars! - that they have.’ Jumbling some words just to cook up an ‘answer’? Anyway, you have it backwards. If the Church didn’t prescribe and proscribe, parents wouldn’t know what to be educators and exemplars of.


roy chen yee | 11 July 2021  

That is not so, Roy, as is plainly observable in Nature. The natural parental instinct throughout the animal kingdom, unless one cleaves towards the behaviour of the plainly dysfunctional, is to protect. So while even a reptile might nurture, it takes a mighty leap of the imagination to picture a magisterium to whose authority it might submit before deciding upon gobbling up its next hapless victim.


Michael Furtado | 13 July 2021  

Michael Furtado: ‘That is not so, Roy, as is plainly observable in Nature. The natural parental instinct throughout the animal kingdom, unless one cleaves towards the behaviour of the plainly dysfunctional, is to protect.’ Your post is irrelevant, even leaving aside the dotty interposition of the reptile with the Magisterium. ‘[P]rotect’ is a lower form of ‘be[ing] educators and exemplars of.’ To protect from material hazard is a visceral reaction of nature. To protect from spiritual hazard is an intellectual response produced by grace building upon nature.


roy chen yee | 14 July 2021  

But, Roy, the reptile works within the natural order of Nature. Or are you now saying that the Magisterium is beyond or against Nature (which argues against Aquinas)?


Michael Furtado | 16 July 2021  

Michael Furtado: ‘the reptile works within the natural order of Nature. Or are you now saying that the Magisterium is beyond or against Nature (which argues against Aquinas)?’ The reptile works with what it has and the human works with what it has, a reptilian brain overlaid with a more advanced cerebral system. This is why the more advanced cerebral system, accessing through its philosophical faculties the grace which builds upon nature, is able to question the sense of a predilection like homosexuality which serves no purpose, unlike the reptile which, being built to purpose and not dallying with such nonsense, has no need to question a predilection it will never have.


roy chen yee | 18 July 2021  

Have I got news for you, O Rob Roy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homosexual_behavior_in_animals And I'd better steer away from queer snake behaviour in case it ignites your devil obsession and triggers yet another tirade from you against that poor animal in which you co-opt Our Lady, as many fundamentalists have done since Fatima, in your resort to an apocalyptic rant.


Michael Furtado | 19 July 2021  

Michael Furtado: How are humans supposed to be sui generis if we ape lesser animals? Instinct impels animals. Humans have meta-instinct, the perception to see the instinct and question it. How animals behave, soullessly and instinctually, is non-moral. Then, along comes a creature with a soul and a brain, who sees the biological cue, and wants to convert it into a moral cue. Excuse me? The Fall explains it. If you disavow proper modes of thinking, the logical chaos that follows will produce any number of zany outcomes, the zaniest of which is for the creature with the most advanced brain to use a zany outcome of one of the lesser-brained creatures to justify its own zaniness. Anyway, if it can’t talk, has no money to buy flowers or chocolates, can’t write and, in any case, has no email system to convey its feelings, rubbing itself against another creature is about the only thing a lesser social creature can do to convey that it is not a threat or a competitor. One can only be grateful that, living in an environment of speech, thought and electronic communication, Biden and Xi don’t have to lick each other.


roy chen yee | 20 July 2021  

Maybe THAT's what's missing in the mix, Roy. We ARE, as agreed and among many other things, also creatures of instinct as well as of flesh and blood, and where brain-power fails to solve a problem what's wrong with being human (I mean in the instinctual, animal sense, e.g., through give and take, backing down, distraction, changing the subject, giving way, bowing to pressure etc.) That's observably true in the animal kingdom. Why not in ours? In fact we know the answer: pride, greed, lustfulness, pomposity and the rest of it, all of them accoutrements of what you call The Fall, which I regard as a allegorical story to convey the same meaning. Why do you always think when contributors to this conversation allude to the power of mythology that it is a fiction to which they refer? Why read their explanations, such as they are, as excuses not to engage with critical questions of existence and behaviour and not as alternative, more contemporary myths to be explored as a means of clarifying the complexities of the world in which we live? Where indeed does it say in Scripture that these are the literal truths in which we must believe?


Michael Furtado | 21 July 2021  

Michael Furtado: ‘Why do you always think when contributors to this conversation allude to the power of mythology that it is a fiction to which they refer? Why read their explanations, such as they are, as excuses not to engage with critical questions of existence and behaviour and not as alternative, more contemporary myths to be explored as a means of clarifying the complexities of the world in which we live?” Because when you’re God, you don’t have to write fiction to bring your ideas to life. You can make life to bring your ideas to life. Hence, the Fall is not an allegory. Why have an allegory when it’s no extra effort to have the real thing – co-starring your favourite non-existent, Lucifer? Religious revisionists fictionalise history so they can say that because the past did not happen, there is no precedent to prevent them from creating the future in their own image.


roy chen yee | 22 July 2021  

Ah, Roy! If only your words were more poetic. I think here of Gerard Manley Hopkins. The Jesuits seemed at a loss about what to do with this obviously gay priest. More than a century later your's is an exact repeat of their dilemma. Hopkins' devotion to Duns Scotus put him out of the mainstream of his superiors, who favored Aquinas for his understanding of the unity of all things over the individual 'thisness' of Scotus: 'that which makes this oak tree this oak tree only, or this rose this rose only, or this person this person only, and not another—something unique and separate, God’s infinite and incredible freshness of Creation every nanosecond of every day, world without end', as The Tablet described it at the time of Hopkins' death centenary. On that occasion, John Berryman, a great poet, wrote: 'Fr Hopkins said the only true literary critic is Christ. Let me lie down exhausted, content with that'. And this was about a priest-poet whose flamboyantly gay imagery Hopkins submitted to the torch and mere fragments of which came to posthumous light only after the bleak theology you insist upon was discarded (although incessantly reprised in your warnings about Lucifer).


Michael Furtado | 24 July 2021  

Michael Furtado: “John Berryman, a great poet, wrote: 'Fr Hopkins said the only true literary critic is Christ….’” Ironically, I can agree with your ‘gay priest’ (assuming you are correct) better than you because neither Fr Hopkins nor I, unlike you, have to accept as ‘the only true literary critic’ someone who talks to himself in the desert.


roy chen yee | 25 July 2021  

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