I am frequently engaged in conversation with people who believe that the poor deserve their lot, because they are indolent, stupid, drug-addled or simply the victims of government support programs that have rotted their fortitude. This attitude dates back at least two centuries, and has been echoed throughout different periods by those adhering to a Protestant worldview. But honestly, it says much more about the person holding it than it does about poor people. Like those who truly understand the nature of capitalism, we all need to realize that poverty is inherent in our economic system, and the working poor and impoverished are natural emanations of a system that is embraced and revered by most of society.
Despite the fact that “welfare” was eliminated in the mid-90s, people still associate temporary assistance programs like food stamps with being “on the dole.” Even less informed is the belief that unemployment insurance constitutes a hand-out (it is, as the name states, insurance purchased by employers.) Consequently, a recurring prescription is to alter religious practices and moral behavior in order to eliminate the drain on our society. Whether or not this belief is genuine, it is clearly incorrect.
Creating wealth is a zero-sum process. My criticism of those involved in the debate is focused in all directions: poverty is not a failing of those experiencing it, and it cannot be “eliminated” through education or assistance programs (although such programs may help individuals escape it.) An exemplary demonstration of honesty was found in the debates over the New Poor Law of 1834 in Great Britain. Its purpose was not to eliminate poverty but to merely secure survival for those in the labor market. As Nassau Senior and Edwin Chadwick – both commissioners who drafted the Report – note, poverty is the natural and proper condition of all those who have to work to stay alive. And Bentham observed:
…as labour is the source of all wealth, so poverty is of labour. Banish poverty, you banish wealth.
Disdain for the poor, especially in a society that considers itself meritocratic (like the United States,) is misguided at best and disingenuous at worst. Poverty is simply, as my father used to say, “the cost of doing business.”
So, let us have the debate about whether our society provides relief for the poor or ignores them because we do not care. I would warn, however, that if we are a meritocratic society then all of us may experience poverty one day and be grateful for the generosity of society. But one assertion that I cannot abide is that poverty is a failing and fault of those who experience it.