The way society talks about the poor is one of the most interesting intersections between economics, morality, and policy. Decisions have to be made not only about the best ways to develop policy for society, but also about what kind of society we will be morally. With this in mind, there is one particular discourse that is perhaps most important. That is about who is able-bodied. There is an underlying sense that some of the poor are “deserving” of the assistance of society and government, while some poor people are simply mooching off of the kindness of others. It is not just that people think about the poor in two distinct ways; it is also the wildly different levels of emotion that go into these analyses. The deserving poor—including people who have severe disability or have been put them incredible tragedy—are often looked on with kindness by a society that is more than willing to provide what they need. The undeserving poor, however, are viewed with intense scrutiny, skepticism, and derision. They are attacked morally, as people use them as the standard by which all is judged. No one would ever want to be like the undeserving poor because they are represented as what is wrong with society. Their plight receives no empathy. Instead, it receives the full force of judgment that accompanies a brand of new capitalism where people and their worth are mostly viewed through the critical frame of how much money they can make.
As Badger and Sanger-Katz write, there is nothing new about the discussions on the poor that one can see today. In fact, these conversations mirror the very conversations that took place as England was putting in place its old “poor laws” (Badger and Sanger-Katz). There were some significant policy considerations that powered the old poor laws. This was a body of doctrines that made distinctions between the poor. The primary classical liberal perspective held that all men who were able should work, and if they did not, then they did not deserve to eat. However, they broke down the poor in terms of the “impotent poor,” who were ill, lame, or infirm. These were people who could not work for one reason or another. They received relief through either cash payments or the “parish loaf,” a food distribution system (Nicholls). Next, there were the able-bodied poor, who were capable of working but had no work. These individuals were sent to work in various settings. Powering this policy was the sense that what was ailing these people was a lack of opportunity. This society looked on people who could work but chose not to as “lazy.” There was no excuse, then, for their behavior, and society treated it like a crime. They were sent to prison in some cases because of their vagrancy. Breaking down the poor on these important distinctions set the foundation for the fact that some people every much deserved assistance and other people were taking advantage of their fellow citizens. These things have continued to permeate our understanding of the poor even today.

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The classical liberal view of the poor can in some ways contrast with the Paternalist Christian view. The paternalistic ethic, which is repeated today through the Prosperity Doctrine, held that the reason people were poor was not because of some internal flaw, but because God had chosen to bless some people with extreme wealth because they were more capable of using it. This was taken to justify extreme inequality, but the people then also understood that even in their inequality, they had an obligation to care for the poor. This is because they suggested that it was the natural way of things according to God, who had made the rich the “fathers” of the poor, who were seen like children who could not care for themselves. This view is quite obviously paternalistic because it elevates the rich over the poor and takes away all of their autonomy. Classical liberalism viewed the poor at least as people who had the ability to do things, but it did not seek to provide much assistance. Both views were damaging in their own way, and they were powered by ideology and greed. On one hand, the paternalist view seems to advocate taking care of the poor, but this is only so that the rich can justify their own greed by suggesting it is the work of God. The classical liberal perspective justifies poverty by suggesting the poor are only poor because they lack that hard working ethic, with the exception of those who were truly infirm.

The New Poor Law was powered by the policy consideration that paying for things for the poor was costing too much money (Heilbroner and Milberg). If people wanted to eat, they needed to go to workhouses (Green). It was in many ways more penal, taking away the mechanisms through which society could provide for people in need. This came during a time when Great Britain had lost some of its wealth from the end of the age of exploration. On some level, this law totally rejects the paternalistic view of the duty to help the poor, and it even takes away the soft side of the otherwise harsh classical liberal view of what to do with the poor, as well.

New work requirements for Medicaid are very much like the assumptions powering the older poor laws in Elizabethan England. They are based on the notion that people should only receive some help if they are trying to help themselves. In some respects, the debates on the issue highlighted how politicians often view the very poor as being morally corrupt people in need of a boost of motivation. They are viewed as just being lazy because they do not have the incentive to better themselves. Of course, this view misunderstands poverty and also fails to take into account the realities of human rights. The free markets can be brutal in a way, and this is alright when people are figuring out the price and best way to sell widgets. When it comes to some things, though, like medicine for people who are very sick and healthcare for all, the rote adherence to market conditions presents many difficulties. For instance, the markets can punish people for having pre-existing conditions, which essentially creates a death sentence. Likewise, the classical and Christian paternalist view of what makes a person poor completely misses the reality that people who are poor are typically born poor. It is often a combination of inevitability and circumstance that keep people from moving up on the social ladder. Problematically, it is very hard for people to advance up the ladder in the world today, and many of the laws on the poor are designed not to alleviate that problem, but to make people who inherited their success feel better about enjoying that success.

Learning more about the history of these laws has reinforced my view that America has an unrealistic view of poverty, and that the unrealistic view is based on the same old games people have been playing for centuries. People have been in search of a justification for greed since the beginning of capitalism and empire-building. What the relationship between the poor laws and today’s poor laws show is that some policies are just designed to allow people the mirage of feeling deserving by putting down people who they have never tried to truly understand.

  • Badger, Emily and Margot Sanger-Katz. 2018. “Who’s Able-Bodied Anyway? The 400-year history of how we talk about the deserving versus the undeserving poor.” The New York Times February 3, 2018. Available:
  • Green, David R. Pauper capital: London and the poor law, 1790–1870. Routledge, 2016.
  • Heilbroner, Robert L. and William Milberg. 2012. The Making of Economic Society. Upper Saddle River, NY: Pearson.
  • Nicholls, George. A history of the English poor law. Vol. 3. Routledge, 2016.