Father Theophan's Blog
In Defense of the Undeserving Poor
Therefore, I ask you, as two gentlemen, not to play that game on me.
I'm playing straight with you.
I ain't pretending to be deserving.
I'm undeserving; and I mean to go on being undeserving.
I like it; and that's the truth.
Will you take advantage of a man's nature…?
Alfred P. Doolittle, in the musical My Fair Lady, identifies an increasingly prevalent American attitude to the poor. The poor are divided up into the deserving poor and the undeserving poor; those whose plight is regrettable, and those whose plight is of their own making and thus not worthy of charity or even charitable thought.
It is this attitude toward the undeserving poor which is most heinous and un-Christian. Over and over, in real life and on social media, we hear calls for personal responsibility. Drug tests for welfare recipients is the most recent and most socially acceptable way to weed out those who don’t deserve help. But derogatory comments are common against people who pour money into “lowriders” and tattoos and piercings. “Why would someone waste their money on those kind of things?” “They shouldn’t get help from the government if they’re going to waste it like that.”
Although I am a priest now, and don’t have to get my hands (literally) dirty with work if I don’t want to, for most of my adult life I have worked menial, blue collar jobs. I have been a courtesy clerk at a grocery, a stocker at K-Mart, and a grease-monkey at an oil-change shop. All of these jobs were in one of the poorest counties in the United States. The vast majority of my coworkers in these positions were Hispanic and poor, the working poor.
They were mostly as intelligent as any others I have known, and they were just about as honest and hard-working as any others, and sometimes much more so. But the culture of poverty was all they knew. Their parents or grand-parents were often immigrants (sometimes illegal), and they went to work early in life to support their families.
Going to college was a luxury that was not even on their radar. They had families that needed their income. These were people who lived even less than paycheck to paycheck. Who sometimes (unwisely) used pay-day loans to make ends meet.
Poverty is inherited because it is learned from the parents. Is it because of objectively bad decisions? Often times, yes. But planning for the future, and making decisions that will make one’s future better are learned skills. Skills often lacking in the lower-income brackets.
So maybe we can excuse people for being born into poverty, and not going to school. But tattoos? Lowriders? Cigarettes? Wasting money on these things is unconscionable and should disqualify someone from receiving charity, right?
As a middle-class American, I know where I will be living next month. My rent will be paid and my land-lord will honor the lease. My apartment is relatively comfortable, has heat, water, and electricity, and if something breaks, the land-lord has it repaired quickly. I have lived in a house that I was paying a mortgage on, but life was just as comfortable and secure there.
Now imagine having to live in a place with no lease agreement, with too many people living in the same space, where mold or faulty wiring or inconsistent heat, is the only financial option. Would you have pride in your home? Would you spend your meager pay on fixing a home that is not yours and may not be your residence next month?
The attitude of the working poor can be compared to a nomadic life. Security and stability in home life is expensive and largely unknown. So they put their money into things which are portable.
While working at the oil-change shop, a coworker and I were talking about our dream cars. I don’t know what my choice was, but it was probably a car costing six figures. My friend pointed out a 1980s Cadillac. I was stunned that someone would aim so low, but then I realized that this was not a dream for him, but the best goal that he could likely achieve. Once he acquired the car, it would become a status symbol, and with no on-going payments, something that could not be taken away.
The same thought pattern can be applied to tattoos. I make sure that my living quarters are painted, that the furniture is pleasant and in good repair, and I have some art on the walls to make it look nice. But, for me, eviction is not a threat. I am not worried about mold or the roof collapsing.
My fellows in the oil-change shop did not have that security, and so some invested in tattoos. Was it a wise investment? No, but the result was, again, something that could never be taken away.
My family is not wealthy, but a few times in a normal year we will take road trips or get a new gadget, and we go out to eat more often than is financially responsible. But we can afford it. We spend money on things we like that could be used better.
Alternately, I had one coworker who was seriously contemplating filing for bankruptcy over a $1,200 debt. He just couldn’t see a way out.
I am not defending our welfare system. It is inefficient at best and abysmal and corrupt at worst. But the people at the bottom do not deserve our hatred. They do what they can with what they have while living in conditions that would horrific to middle-America.
The majority of our tax dollars do not go to help them. If they did, we all might be better off.
The rich exist for the sake of the poor. The poor exist for the salvation of the rich. –Saint John Chrysostom