Rowan Williams sowed confusion last week when he raised the distinction between the "deserving" and "undeserving" poor

In his recent New Statesman editorial, Archbishop Rowan Williams criticised the re-emergence of the seductive language of the deserving and underserving poor. The job of a Bishop is to teach and clarify. I have often thought that this particular Archbishop has a mission that is the opposite to that of the Institute of Economic Affairs (and in a different field). The IEA is supposed to take good complex free-market economics and expound it more clearly to a wider audience. The Archbishop often seems to take clear concepts and make them more complicated so it is extremely difficult to work out what he means.

There is an important debate to be had about the deserving and undeserving poor. Iain Duncan Smith ducked that debate in his response to the Archbishop by saying that he never used the words. I suppose it is quite reasonable for him not to use the words - politicians can choose their own terms for debate.

However, an Archbishop's job is to clarify and not to confuse and it is worth making some clarification here because all he did in his editorial was sow confusion. Indeed, this sort of clarification is one of the more useful contributions to political debate that Bishops can make. The obvious question raised by distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor is "deserving of what?" If that question is asked then clearly there is a distinction between deserving and undeserving for the Christian depending on what the "what" is? To trivialise, are the poor deserving of a Rolls Royce? Clearly not.

Read the rest of the article on the ConservativeHome website.

The distinction between the deserving and underserving poor is not a new one. Elements of it can be seen in the attitudes and policies of the last Tory government. Even worse (in my view at least), it is a mindset that seemed to infect the last Labour government as well at times. Policies such as the introduction of child tax credits and working tax credits, and attacks on those on DLA, all gave the impression that the state should only help those who could work and were working, or those who had children. Those that didn't fall into these categories were either quietly forgotten (at least publicly) or penalised.

This issue (deserving and undeserving poor) arises because of current political attitudes to the poor, and attempts by both politicians and voters to explain and justify the existence of the poor. These explanations appear to now centre on two main alleged causes.

The first potential cause of poverty is deemed to be misfortune: disability and disease, or just the severely limited hand that life has dealt to some.

The second cause, we are led to believe, is self-inflicted. People are poor it is argued by virtue of their own poor decisions. Thus they have no-one to blame but themselves, or so the theory goes.

This is where the distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor appears to come from. There are those who are deemed to be poor through no fault of their own and/or whose poverty is unavoidable (the deserving poor), and there are those who are thought (by some) to be entirely responsible for there own predicament, and so presumably could help themselves get out of it if they wanted to (the undeserving poor).

However there is a third possibility, but it is one that few in society now appear willing to even acknowledge. It is that many of the poor are poor, not because of random chance, or because of their own actions and failings, but because of the actions of others. The poor are poor because the actions of richer people make them poor and keep them poor. If so then the poor are indeed "deserving of compulsory income transfers from those who are working and paying taxes".

Nowhere is this phenomenon more apparent than in the current economic crisis. Millions of people have lost jobs and financial security as a result of this recession. Is this because of their own misguided actions? Generally not. Is it all just a consequence of some random event or catastrophe? Absolutely not. It is the result of an economic mess that was caused by others (including bankers, politicians, economic policy makers). And now they (the poor) are expected to suffer the egregious consequences of economic policies that were designed and chosen by others for the benefit of others. Their growing poverty is a direct result of the actions and choices of others. Moreover these choices were not made on their behalf for their benefit, but on behalf of others for other people's benefit. That is the moral basis for compulsory income transfers.

I would go beyond "what" (they are deserving), for I would query the very use of the word "deserving". It is one of those subliminally framing words, disingenuous, insidious. Just by consenting to use it, we are enclosed, we are pushed into a synthetic, contrived argument, a false dichotomy. Surely the person to decide who should or should not be in receipt of assistance (and "deserving" might not be the criteria) is the individual. We already have a word for this: charity.
@Cantab83: If you and many others really believe this then we are all in much more trouble than we currently think. Poverty has been the default condition of human kind for centuries/millenia - none of it 'caused' by bankers and financiers. Indeed there is no society in history which hasn't had a well established banks and financial markets that has escaped from poverty. Many bankers are culpable for the decisions they have made over recent years - and it is true that many of them have been let of the hook by the previaling 'bail-out' culture, but it is utter nonsense to suggest they have 'caused' poverty elsewhere. One might just as well say that if the poor were less poor before the financial crisis this relative affluence was not of their own doing, but was the product of their living in a technologically advanced society - with functioning banks and financial markets.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
Type the characters you see in this picture. (verify using audio)
Type the characters you see in the picture above; if you can't read them, submit the form and a new image will be generated. Not case sensitive.