In one of my social work classes we were given questions to answer regarding the concept of the worthy poor and its impact on the initial development of social welfare. We were also asked to comment on its place in the modern welfare system. Against my better judgment I’ve posted it down below. I’m not sure what sort of grade it will get since I just handed it in earlier this memorably sorrowful and palindromic date, 9/11/19. While the language itself is probably okay, I wonder if I actually answered the question or merely indulged in 4 double-spaced pages of meandering curmudgeonly philosophical bullshit. Either way, I have to say that I have been rather grumpy about it, both in how I struggled to get anything written down and my thoughts on how humans have really been poor neighbors to each other.
So, are you a TBI survivor who just not feeling quite right? And are you just not feeling the love either? I don’t advocate just holding your hand out for free meals but so many of us are not capable of taking care of ourselves, much less working. Have your applications been rejected by any of the aid agencies you’ve sought help from? I was rejected by the SSDI folks but I was given financial help from the TBI Fund of NJ and I am really and truly grateful. It paid for me getting my driving abilities back and it helped pay for cognitive therapy and vocational rehab assistance. I’ve worked hard at getting my prior self back but it has been comparatively easy for me.
It turns out that it is not only difficult to get INTO the welfare system but for reasons I still don’t quite understand it is also tricky getting yourself OUT of it. It’s a paradox we encountered in our introduction to the concept of the worthy poor. I don’t think I did much more than acknowledge it but at least I tried to speak to how it has been bandied about for a long time and used like a political pawn to suit who’s ever in power.
It has since been graded but not with any real feedback.*
The assignment also came with three articles to read about how the social welfare system has been affected by 9/11 and the current political slant on public assistance and immigration.
Ehh, they don’t really need that aid. I mean, there’s a WAR fer Pete’s sake!
Are 9/11 first responders worthy enough for us to keep a promise?
Does a person who could need help pose as great a risk as someone looking to do us harm? I guess if you’re concerned they might not already have resources of their own waiting for them here…
On how we see the worthy poor
Addressing the needs of the poor has been something humans have struggled with for thousands of years. We see opinions and directives in many places in the holy texts and it seems that having it written down just made more concise points over which to argue. How much should we care? Who deserves our kindness and how much should we give? Who’s just lazy and up to no good? Meting out justice after deciding has developed under the guidance of several philosophies taking their turns over the past two centuries as social work became more organized. And through the years there are protests like this:
Most men worry about their own bellies and other people’s souls, when we all should be worried about our own souls and other people’s bellies.
As an example of how he put his words into action, in the midst of a cholera epidemic in 1848, Rabbi Salanter wanted Jews to dig in and help those in distress, even on the Sabbath. The law dictated they were forbidden to do work but he argued that Jewish ethics asserted the obligation to save lives was more important than following other laws that would get in the way of that higher duty. At least in this case his message was: stop with all your lofty morals and just fix things. In the end, being good to one another is above all else.
As the concept of the worthy poor took shape, logical extensions of who did or didn’t deserve help were not just attitudes but were built into real policies leaving noble ideas like Salanter’s to the lecture halls and not the real world. That same tension between doing what is considered morally right and governing reality gave way to ever more stigmatizing and blaming the poor for their predicament. The residual perspective that people should be self-sufficient has stubbornly clung to evaluating the poor despite the development of several institutions meant to provide assistance. Many attempts later, a lasting reasonable way of incorporating both consideration of the individual and their overall situation remained elusive because of philosophical and political squabbling. Eventually framing disability as a medical or mental health problem dominated the field (Cornell, 2006). If a diagnosis could provide some rationale and measurable indicators of disability, then there wouldn’t be as much to argue over now that it was objective medicine. There was an explanation and it wasn’t judgmental, right?
The worthy poor were still societal misfits because they were dependent on institutions to provide for them. For all the sympathy they got, they were, and still are, devalued compared to those exemplifying the Protestant work ethic. It has always been difficult for a poor person to qualify for welfare assistance and seeing them as defective or deviant made it much easier to say they are just looking for a handout rather than helping hand returning to the workforce. Paradoxically, once you’ve been qualified as a member of the worthy poor and therefore cannot work, the welfare system seeks to keep you dependent as part of its role of managing the country’s workforce. Social welfare has built into it disincentives for disabled people who are trying to come back to work. Financial penalties incrementally take away their benefits if they earn too much. I know this first hand, having worked with the New Jersey DVR to get a subsidized job working part time at Home Depot. Unlike others who had benefits to lose, I could work as much as I could tolerate because I had no Social Security Disability benefits at risk.
Modern Social Welfare
A cynical summation describing how we dispense social welfare benefits now might be to say that the question is no longer how to reliably define the worthy poor but how to readily decline providing them assistance. The everyday people I know outside of school who are NOT poor can barely spare a moment to consider why some people are mired in their poverty.
The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media. The 30-second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentation of pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance… The plain lesson is that study and learning – not just of science, but of anything – are avoidable, even undesirable.
Carl Sagan (1996)
That’s from his commentary about life over 20 years ago, even before social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter. Public discourse has seemingly eroded to the point of exchanges better suited to the playground than the public forum. It’s fair to say that Sagan would be further disheartened knowing that such attitudes have flourished and now inhabit the halls of our current government and permeated down through to even the local school boards.
Maybe simpler messages are easier for us to digest and thereby fool ourselves into believing we’ve given something any thought when information comes at us in smaller bites. Plus, our education standards have not been high enough to foster the deeper level of insight needed for independent thought, which is discouraging to me because I feel it is the main thing society relies on to shape its coming generations. I suppose Rabbi Salanter’s elegant and pithy comment about charity would get a nice nod today before checking Instagram and Facebook yet again. Might make a nice meme though. On top of our shortened attention span, social media enables easier suppression of inconvenient ideas by making everything on a given platform have a similar basic look and feel. Visually lumping it all together has the effect of legitimizing the trolls and disinformation as they sit alongside honest and factual content. Considering whether an indigent person is a member of the worthy poor is easier to dismantle if you pay less attention to the person’s situation when messages are fleeting like passing thoughts. Now that people who grew up with social media are in higher business and government positions, those of the worthy poor’s cases are even more at risk of being whittled down to a mere reflex of dismissal.
I consider myself to be an avid reader of more than just medicine and history, but also of music and a couple schools of philosophy. However, before I began taking classes in social work at Seton Hall I don’t recall encountering the phrase, the worthy poor. I’ve been working hard to get a good sense of it, especially since it takes on a welfare system-specific meaning. I had close to the right idea but not anything like the full notion of what it meant. Except for those involved in public policy and social awareness, I feel society lacks that understanding. I wonder what the people in power making our laws know on average about the worthy poor and social welfare institutions, except that everyone knows they cost too much. Commentators, editorials, their staff and lobbyists are what they’re likely to have as sources. And the people on the front lines trying to help? High caseloads in a judgmental welfare system make it harder to keep up with good intentions. As a result, will the term, worthy poor, become more like a demerit than acceptance?
Yisroel Salanter (11/3/1809 – 2/2/1883) Founder of the Mussar Movement of Orthodox Judaism
Cornell, K. (2006). Person in situation: history, theory, and new directions for social work practice. Praxis, 6, 50–57, p.51
Sagan, C. (1996). The Demon-Haunted World – Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York, NY: Random House, p.25
Uhh, thanks, but I was wondering what other things you might have to say, like did I actually show I understood what you were discussing. But I should be happy, right? Or was the minus because I made you have to stay awake for a couple extra pages? Okay, I’m not as cranky as it may sound but I was looking for more feedback so I hope there will be some follow through.