The “Undeserving Poor”


Republican Senator Chuck Grassley recently defended his party’s unpopular tax reform bill by reviving the Victorian myth of “the undeserving poor.”

He said the proposed tax changes would reward Americans who invest their money “as opposed to those that are just spending every penny they have, whether it’s on booze or women or movies.”

You don’t often hear that kind of thinking these days. Most people recognize that poor families didn’t necessarily impoverish themselves by their bad habits. Real life is much more complex than that.

Recent studies show that low-income Americans spend half their paychecks on housing and face rising expenses in such essential areas as transportation. The cost of living keeps going up while wages lag far behind.

That doesn’t leave a whole lot for carousing. Or investing.

But the myth of the “undeserving poor” provides the rich with a handy excuse for selfish and predatory behavior.

I understand  this kind of thinking is used by some eastern religions to exempt the fortunate from helping the unfortunate. The argument is that the poor are being punished for sins committed in a past life and helping them would sabotage God’s will.

But I don’t think Chuck Grassley believes in reincarnation and karma.

And he must know that in this life, bad things happen to good people. They get sick. They get laid off. And in today’s society, they’re likely to be stuck in a variety of part-time service jobs.

I don’t care how frugal you are, you don’t have extra cash to invest when you’re flipping hamburgers or delivering pizzas.

And, increasingly, that’s the kind of job Americans are likely to get – even with a college degree.

This hopeless environment breeds drug and alcohol abuse, making the economic trap much harder to escape.

Of course in Grassley’s circle, their kids are assured of a different start in life. There’s a white-collar job waiting in their dad’s company or with one of his country club buddies.

It’s this kind of inequality that plagues American society. And the Republicans’ “tax reform” would make the situation even more unfair.

Grassley’s views about the poor

Evolution of the undeserving poor

How the poor spend their money