Wednesday, 19 March 2014

On the 'undeserving poor'

I often hear people speaking out in indignation about the phrase 'the undeserving poor'. I struggle to share their indignation. It seems to me that the phrase expresses at least one general principle that I find entirely reasonable to be applied in the welfare state: merit.

It is mainly the left that seems to be deeply agitated by the use of the phrase but their arguments against it are far from clear to me. There are at least two aspects that move me to find their indignation either motivated by unacceptable paternalism or by a confusion of values.

Let's examine paternalism first. Saying that everyone deserves what he or she needs regardless of merit, seems to me to undermine the principle of equality and fairness. In essence, those who dislike the term 'undeserving' appear to say that there are some people who are not subject to the principle of merit which is applied to everyone else, clearly flouting the principle of equality and fairness.

So why is this patronising? To me, the phrase 'deserving' or 'undeserving' articulates a fundamental principle that whatever we gain in life should be based on our merits. To negate the possibility that some are deserving and others not, means nothing else but that, in contrast to anybody else, some do not have to contribute to their own wellbeing. To me, this smacks of infantilising and patronising impulses.

But denying that there are people 'undeserving' of welfare is not just patronising. It is also a symptom of confusion within the leftist terminological universe. There is no other political movement that loves more to talk about merit and 'desert' than the left when it comes to those on the top of the income scale. The left is often aghast at how 'undeserving' the salaries and bonuses of the bankers or CEOs of companies are. So, whilst they base their argument on the principle of merit when it comes to highlight the alleged discrepancy between personal achievements and income for the top earners, they would like to banish all talk about merit when it comes to the poor. This sounds like a confusion of values to me.

So far from being a disreputable phrase, I believe that 'undeserving' and its related term 'merit' is one of the sharpest weapons in the armoury of social criticism.

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