The Deserving versus Undeserving in the 21st Century
Based on my personal observation and conversations over the past 7-8 years, the population of Columbia’s street poor consists of few undeserving. Most street poor have multiple reasons for being on the street. Here is what I have seen of this mostly male group:
1. Few veterans—because of societal efforts to care for these “deserving citizens.” Less than 10 percent.
2. Lots of alcohol and drug users—I don’t know which is the cause and which is the effect but propose discouraging all alcohol and drug use. Probably more than half.
3. Mental disabilities—at least than one-third, probably more
4. Stigma of criminal justice system—probably more than I would guess, at least one quarter.
5. Family disruptions—marital problems, disputed child support, kids kicked out, at least one-quarter. Several fathers and mothers have been rejected by their children.
6. Physical disabilities—job injuries and accidents. A quarter.
7. Spotty work records—older folks without social security or pensions because of prison, “working off the books,” and being screwed over by an employer.
8. The working poor— probably just a few of the “truly homeless” but many of Columbia’s poverty population.
9. Marginal intelligence—just not smart, unlikely to be hired. 10 percent.
10. Social misfits—some people probably have never fit into schools, churches, or their communities. Perhaps they are lazy, more likely they are “loners.” They just miss the bus, forget to turn in the forms, and can’t follow directions. 10- 20 percent.
From time-to-time, I have been asked “are those people deserving of our help?” I think about this when I am walking around town and eating at the University Club. Here is what I think.
In a just society, comprised of small communities, we each would get what we deserve. Generally, if we did not work, we would not eat. In the olden days, family members and community members had to “pull their own weight.” But even in that ideal, simple world most citizens would agree to assist those who, thru no fault of their own, could not provide for themselves. We would care for the young, and the old, the mentally feeble and the physically lame. America’s Great Depression (of the 1930) s complicated that idyllic social system. Macroeconomic failure challenged the foundation of “earning what you deserve” and mass migration overloaded communities’ capacity “to take care of their own.”
By the 21st century, rapid economic change, often governmentally funded and induced, can cause “undeserved” job loss; damaging bad personal decisions can result in drug and alcohol addictions, and large cities and suburbs do not have the capability of communities to identify, let alone, to take care of their own.”
Consequently, distinguishing between the deserving and undeserving has become difficult if not impossible. Despite America’s superior wealth relative to other countries of the world, we are less likely to see citizens as deserving of societal assistance. America’s racial heterogeneity, and our history of racial tensions, makes public discussions and decisions about the deserving and undeserving more difficult.
Societal “assistance” is a wide category of government programs, community resources, and social practices. We don’t call “executive severance packages” social assistance but we should.
In 1971, A THEORY OF JUSTICE by John Rawls, developed the notion of a “veil of ignorance” as a mechanism for dissecting thorny ethical issues. Simply put, a “just solution” would be the one selected if all decision makes were behind a “veil of ignorance” such that they did not know their “original position,” e.g. gender, race, age, occupation, height, etc. In such a just society, designed behind a veil of ignorance, there would not be racial nor religious discrimination. There would not be gender pay discrimination, but there may be gender role differentiation based on child rearing. It is likely there would be a good deal of parental leave and support for young children. A just society would have to figure out what position it wants to take on family issues and single motherhood.
In that light, my hunch is that we would be spending a lot more time talking about the “undeserving rich” than we now talk about the “undeserving poor.” In 2017, our president and a majority of our Senate, have accumulated much more wealth that they have earned. They “deserve” it because of family inheritance or tax advantages. College admissions are increasingly related more to family wealth and connections than individual merit. A just society would alter these current social practices.
A just society would care for the elderly, as America has done rather satisfactorily over the past 50 years, and it would eliminate racial differences in economic opportunity. A just society would provide for foster children and orphans.
A just society would most likely provide at least transitory support for the technologically displaced (due to government policies) farm hand, coal miner, and black smith. (Maybe this is basis for larger executive severance packages.)
Drug addictions and criminal records are challenging personal situations to think through. Certainly, a just society would invest in drug treatment and prisoner rehabilitation. Often a social expenditure today will reap a high rate of return.
So who of Columbia’s street people are undeserving? I suppose it is mostly a question of duration and number of chances society is willing to provide. Alcohol and drug addicts will be an increasing portion of our society, and probably the easiest to assist, but society’s patience is not unlimited.
Family disruptions deserve more public discussion. Many homeless men can tell you their horror stories with child support enforcement. Likewise, the plight of aging parents do not receive media attention.
The criminal justice system imposes a heavy burden on ex-convicts who have served their time. I’ve seen several well-intentioned guys who just can’t get a break in getting a job.
I suppose the least deserving are the 10 percent who are just plain old tired and worn out from being bounced around society. Their work history is probably spotty, their skills declining. If we are lucky, “through no fault of our own,” we have a pension, social security, a supportive family, maybe an inheritance, to see us through. Otherwise, life can be tough.