The Working Catholic: The Undeserving Poor? by Bill Droel

Too many people seem too sure about the causes and the cure for poverty. I hear it in the barbershop, at my favorite lunch spot and frequently at the bar. “If only they would get a job and quit living off my hard-earned money.” The adjectival hard-earned is always used. I also hear: “My family made it on their own. Why can’t those people?” Plus other riffs on the same theme.
These longstanding complaints are not confined to barroom banter. They are part of public discourse. Elected officials, foundation executives, talk-show hosts and others routinely make a distinction (maybe not in those exact words) between the deserving poor and the undeserving poor. By popular opinion, for example, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (which everyone calls food stamps) is an undeserved handout while Medicare and Social Security are—here’s that phrase again—hard-earned benefits.

Have the poor always fallen into these two categories? Or is the distinction something new?
We will soon celebrate the 500-year anniversary of the great Protestant Reformation. Along with the significant improvements it made to Christianity, the Reformation created unintended consequences. Prior to the Reformation Christian love or caritas looked upon the poor as worthy in and of themselves. They were not despised but assisted to the degree Christians were able to do so. At the same time, please note, the poor of long ago were not romanticized. The poor who made appearances in the New Testament, for example, were not held up as exemplars of virtue.
After the Reformation sympathy or humanitarianism replaced nonjudgmental caritas. This is a subtle shift that hardened into the distinction between deserving and undeserving. It solidified in our country in the 1850s as the poor became synonymous with immigrant Catholics. The orphan trains sponsored by humanitarian groups in New York serve to illustrate the newer approach. Many children wandering the streets were taken-in by an aid society and placed in “a healthier environment” with a rural family in the Midwest. The aid society judged the child’s natural family to be unfit, particularly because it was assumed the natural father (probably Irish-American) drank beer and/or whiskey. The Sisters of Charity and other Catholics in New York tried to retain the older approach: Avoid making judgments; open urban orphanages that kept the child in proximity to the natural family. (Babe Ruth in Baltimore was one example.)

The term Protestant approach or Protestant ethic in this blog is not the same as Protestant religion as practiced in a Methodist or Lutheran church. Nearly everyone in our country, including the Catholics, is Protestant in how they understand poverty, its causes and its remedy. Congressman Paul Ryan, for example, says that he thinks about poverty using Catholic social philosophy. Ryan might devoutly worship in a Catholic church, but his ideas about poverty are not traditional, old-school, mainstream Catholic ideas.

Do some people cheat on their food stamp application? Of course. Are some people who receive assistance lazy? Of course. Are some of those who appear at the door of a parish’s St. Vincent de Paul Society simply con-artists? Of course. Does a St. Vincent de Paul volunteer have a duty to use donated money and food wisely? Indeed, yes. Does a parish volunteer have a fiduciary responsibility to turn away someone who repeatedly asks for help and yet who looks like, with a fresh haircut and a clean shirt, could get a job? That is a tough call for a real world Catholic.

Droel edits a free newsletter on faith and work for National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629).