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

  • 29 June 2021

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.

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