The myth of the undeserving poor

Challenging class stereotypes

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Britain’s Conservative party based much of its successful 2010 election campaign on the promise of cutting welfare spending

In much of the Western world, the welfare state is on the retreat. Traditional social democratic parties are scared to defend strong social security because the public increasingly sees welfare recipients as workshy and lazy. A classic example is the United Kingdom, where the Labour party has been divided on its course to the Conservative government’s drastic social spending cuts. For many years, Labour shied away from defending what many British derisively call ‚chavs‘ – the underclass.


In our societies, this comes as the narrative of the ‚ undeserving poor ‚ prevails.
Its followers believe our economies are meritocracies, where personal success depends on effort. If you work hard, according to them, you’ll climb the ladder and eventually make it to the top. If you are lazy, you’ll stay right where you are. And therefore, strong social security incentivizes laziness, they argue.

According to the predominant narrative of social class, the poor themselves are to blame for being poor.


It’s high time we challenge this myth, for it is both inaccurate and dangerous. The idea of the ‚ undeserving poor ‚ is a classic example of victim-blaming (making the underclass responsible for its situation rather than the broader socio-economic circumstances which lead to poverty), yet sadly, it is often allowed to prevail.
The higher classes have unleashed a veritable class war in some societies based on the concept of the ‚undeserving poor‘ (take the US welfare reform of 1996, the ‚Agenda 2010‘ in Germany and the austerity of the past few years in Britain), oftentimes dismantling the social safety net at the expense of the working class.

The higher classes have moved to dismantle the social safety net in many countries.


Low-income households are stereotyped and stigmatized by media and society and subject to punitive austerity regimes and marginalization by governments. In Britain, for instance, discriminatory housing policies have driven low-income households out of city centres. In France, the poor (and the migrants) have always been ghettoized in the
banlieue suburbs with their lack of employment perspective and high crime rates.
The bitter truth is the wealth gap is widening all over Western Europe and North America. A powerful, extremely rich elite is emerging and the decade of neoliberal deregulation in the 1980s (under Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in the USA) has unleashed the destructive power of capitalism, leading to an out-of-control concentration of power in the global economy and paving the road to the 2008 crash, which plunged millions around the world into poverty.

Neoliberal policies have unleashed the destructive powers of capitalism, concentrating power and wealth in the hands of few and pushing millions into poverty after the 2008 financial meltdown.


While incomes for the richest few are rising (Britain’s 1,000 richest families saw their net worth more than double between 2009 and 2014;
The Guardian, April 26, 2015) , living standards and wages for the lower classes are stagnating at best and falling at worst. One of the most shameful lies of the post-crisis slump is that ‚we’re all in it together‘. We’re not. The rich hold an infinite stock of ‚Get Out Of Jail For Free Cards‘ and when the ship faces a storm, they are the first ones to abandon it.

The wealth of the upper class has been rising while living standards for the ‚ordinary workers‘ have stagnated or even fallen.


And despite what we’re told by media and politicians, social mobility for the poor is very limited. Many, many low-income individuals work hard to make a living but because of low wages (the US minimum wage has not been raised since 2009;
New York Times, October 10, 2015) they cannot make it. Educational inequalities deprive children from poor families of equal opportunity in life. The reason why wealth stays in the hands of a small elite is not the fact that all millionaires and billionaires work harder than the lower classes, but rather the privileged position they are born into: many become rich through inheritance. They do not only profit from their parents‘ financial capital, but also from their social capital (connections to powerful people) and cultural capital (access to elite education, e.g. private schools and expensive colleges). Children from low socio-economic backgrounds lack all these privileges. No matter how hard they try, all too often they will never manage to climb the social ladder, while children from richer families are born at the top and stay there. This is not to say there is absolutely no social mobility; of course there is. But I want to point out that when we debate what it is that holds poor kids back, their alleged ‚laziness‘ is not the main factor. What denies them upward mobility is a political, economic and social system that is rigged and bent towards helping the haves keep their wealth rather than share it with the have-nots.

This system benefits the haves and fails the have-nots.

And of course, there are workshy welfare recipients who abuse the system. But all the data we have proves they only make up a small portion of all social security recipients.

In fact, government policies (including weakening unions, watering down workers‘ rights etc) have created a new class: the working poor, a silently suffering part of our society. They work – often enough full-time in hard jobs – but the wages are simply too low to make a living.

In conclusion, it is absolutely obvious that the ‚undeserving poor‘ is an inaccurate, insulting classist stereotype about lower classes. It is a talking point used by the wealthy and their lobby in politics and press. Don’t fall for it. The conversation we should have is an entirely different one: about how the dramatically rising inequality tears at the social fabric of our countries. How a deregulated, greed-driven ‚capitalism on crack‘ is threatening our wealth, our democracy and our future. Welfare spending isn’t the problem, the tax income lost due to unnecessary corporate subsidies and corporate and billionaire tax avoidance is what really strains our national budgets. We cannot afford wealth without responsibility, and we cannot keep balancing our budgets on the backs of the weak and vulnerable.

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