In this season of good will to all and general cheer let us talk of “The Undeserving.”
They are an emotive topic. They divide people. Do they exist or are they a political scapegoat? I personally do not feel anyone is born undeserving. But some people achieve it. Some seem to take a cruel and degenerate delight in causing harm. Others become so out of weakness. They are faced with moral decisions in life and they take the easy path of closing their conscience to the harm they do others. We have all seen them. It may not be politically correct to label them for what they are but I do not like political corectness.
So let us be honest. The feckless and irresponsible exist. They are people who think the state is there to look after them and clean up their mess. Who think nothing of spending other people’s money and then brazenly asking for more. They are people who make other people’s lives, honest and hard working people’s lives, a misery but laugh because they know the police can do little to them and the courts will just give them a slap on the wrist, if that, and then let them go. Free to walk straight back to do again whatever they feel like.
They are a plague. The State, however, not only does little to stop them, it takes money from the pockets of the deserving and the honest in order to give it to these people.
What I find oddest about the Undeserving is how the papers and politicians only ever seem to talk about the undeserving poor and never, ever the undeserving rich. Yet if we are keen to identify the one, then it is pure hypocrisy and worse, to not recognize the other.
If we are happy to talk in generalizations then let us do so equally. The wealthy are quick to conjure up the feckless and irresponsible poor but what about their moral dopplegangers among the rich? What about the professional bankers who set up bonus schemes in their banks to ensure that products were sold to people who could not affrord them or did not need them? What about those who complied – who took the morally easy route and sold bad products to people who could not afford them or didn’t need them? Were they feckless, and irresponsible? And what about all the traders who sold fraudulent securites and CDOs? They worked for Citi, and Deutsche, and Wells Fargo and RBS and the rest and they knew exactly what they were doing.
What about all the wealthy bankers, accountants, auditors and analysts who all helped the banks they worked for, to take on debts they could not afford and then expected others to clear up their mess and then shouted, “Oi, where’s my bonus. I know my rights!” Are they not loathesome, feckless, irresponsible, anti-social and vile?
If the undeserving poor exist and deserve to be despised, then so do the undeserving rich. If we should loathe and vilify the one group then we should feel free to despise the other. If we feel free to make generalizations about one group then no one should complain if we do the same with the other as well. It cuts both ways.
I do not like generalizations because they are dangerous. They are a handy tool for bigots and haters. But I also do not like dishonesty. So I have to say I have met the undeserving poor. They are stupid and cruel, violent and full of hate. But I have also met people who looked just like them, who talked like them and acted like them, but who did so out of fear. They were perhaps weak, perhaps just realistic about the direness of their situation. They were part of the problem but not its real cause. Not like those who had become so twisted that they were beyond my personal compassion.
I also taught their children for a little while. Some of them had already become cruel and hateful. But most had not. Most were frightened and unsure. They saw cruelty and want all around them and looked for guidance, for answers. The answers I saw them getting not only from those around them but from the wider society who had already labelled them all as the undeserving, feckless underclass, gave them, and me, little hope.
Since then I have met the Undeserving Rich. They too are not born that way. And like their counterparts in the Underclass, there are different shades of undeserving in the Overclass. Some become vile and full of callous disregard very quickly. Others struggle with the moral dissonance of talking about caring while watching their parents not care. I have met many such children of the wealthy and they go in one of two ways. A very few cannot reconcile youthful idealism and their own privilege and refuse to join their parents. They do ‘good works’ and miss the warmth of the family who wil not accept their values. Others crack and become filled with a burning and self righteous anger at the very existence of the poor, who they blame for having caused their moral suffering. In my experience they are the ones who shout loudest about the undeserving poor and how, if anything, the poor deserve their poverty because they do nothing to rise above it. They tell others to get on their bike and rise above adversity when very few of them have had to rise above anything much at all in life.
Of course there are always the self made men who say, “I did it so those who didn’t are lazy.” They are often the most self-righteous. They are rarely willing to entertain the idea that countless circumstances can make one person’s decisions work out while for others something goes wrong. So let me offer another very obvious thought experiment to counter the self made man.
Take a packet of seeds and scatter half on lovingly tended ground, the other half among the stones. In the well tended garden even the weak seed will have a good chance of thriving. Among the stones, every gardener knows the odds are slimmer. Some seeds will still make it but the chances are not good. What kind of gardener would shout at the seeds he had scattered on untended ground as if it were their fault? Of course we are not helpless seeds. But the odds in favour of one group, against the other remains true. Why do we accept this for seeds in a gardren but not for children in a city?
Everything that is levelled at the Undeserving Poor is true of the Undeserving Rich. The feckless and irresponsible exist in both. Both look to others to bail them out. Neither has any intention of changing. Both prey on the rest of us. But which of the Undeserving are the greater danger? Which causes the greater suffering? Which group laughs most at the burden they expect your children and mine to carry for them?
And most importantly which group has the power to change things but chooses not to? Is it the poor who have the power and wealth to transform their lot and yours, or the wealthy?
I would say this, if we are tempted to talk of the ‘Undeserved’ then let us do so fully. There are people who do not deserve the poverty they were born into. In fact I find it difficult to think how anyone could deserve to be born in to povery. Similarly there are people who do not deserve the wealth they were born into. Is this envy talking? No. I am more or less happy with my lot. We are arguing from first principles here. Neither group earned their lot in life. They inherited it. One group enjoys the fruits of their inherited but unearned and therefore ‘undeserved’ wealth and power, the other enjoys unearned and undeserved poverty.
If the notion that there could be undeserving rich bothers you then why does the idea of undeserving poor not bother you?