Deserving and Undeserving Poor

I recently went with a friend to see “I, Daniel Blake,” Ken Loach’s latest social commentary and it was a hard hitting and challenging as “Cathy come home” in the 60’s. The depiction of the strength of resolve, friendship, small acts of kindness and erosion of personal dignity by an inhuman and bureaucratic welfare system left many in the audience in tears and all of us silent in our seats at the end, unwilling to move – felt like a mark of respect for the story we had just been invited into.

The film focussed on the deserving poor and was a stark contrast to do the depiction of the undeserving poor in the media and programmes such as Benefits Street. Some voices criticised the film. I watched a conservative MP being interviewed who was adamant, “It’s not like that!” He buys into the narrative that the welfare system is subject to whole-scale abuse with scroungers, people who do not want to work taking advantage (polite word there). Phil McDuff’s article has some interesting perspectives.

The distinction between different categories of the poor goes back hundreds of years. The Elizabethan poor laws were designed to keep the poor at home to stop them from becoming vagrants. By the 19th Century, with the rise in population, the escalating cost of war, and disparity between the level of support given to the urban and rural poor the government concluded that the old poor law wasn’t working. They felt that a great deal of poverty was not inevitable but a product of fecklessness and that the Elizabethan poor law encouraged irresponsibly large families. With the introduction of the workhouse system the distinction between deserving and undeserving poor became a legal one and the harsh regime of the workhouse was designed to discourage people asking for help, and it was only available to those who could not work. Sound familiar!

The reality is that there are people who are struggling financially through no fault of their own – made redundant, unexpected bills, health issues which means they can no longer work and need help to transition to benefits. There are also those who make unhealthy lifestyle choices, take advantage of the help that is available and would keep on taking if you let them. It’s not one or the other but both.

Antioch’s food/clothes/furniture bank has been running for 5 years in an area of high deprivation where drug and alcohol abuse are major problems. We have a responsibility to steward the donations and resources given in good faith by hard working people and people on benefits. We have to hold boundaries, don’t want to create dependency or support unhealthy lifestyle choices but as a faith community we know that grace always favours the undeserving so there are times when we choose to help on the basis of valuing the fact that a person is made in God’s image however marred or screwed up their lives are.

The narrative of the deserving poor or the undeserving poor is an unhelpful one and the welfare system needs a major value recalibration, a recognition of citizenship through the introduction of the Basic Income – but no doubt we would then be talking about the undeserving rich!

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