The Undeserving Poor

March 2010By Gregory Sampson

Gregory Sampson, ordained a deacon of the Diocese of Sioux City in 1992, serves in Carroll, Iowa. His service to the Church includes hospital and prison ministry. Prior to his move to Iowa, he was a functionary with the Eastman Kodak Company.

One of the most memorable scenes in George Bernard Shaw's 1913 play Pygmalion is the encounter between Professor Higgins and a conniving dustman named Alfred Doolittle. "I'm one of the undeserving poor: That's what I am," intones Doolittle. "Think of what that means to a man. It means that he's up against middle-class morality all the time. If there's anything going, and I put in for a bit of it, it's always the same story: ‘You're undeserving; so you can't have it.'"

Doolittle expands on this theme, emphasizing that his needs as a member of the undeserving poor are not less than those of his more deserving counterparts. "I need more," he claims. "I don't eat less hearty than him; and I drink a lot more." Shaw inserted this bit as comic relief — a disreputable scrounger advancing the cause of the undeserving poor. Audiences saw the apparent irony of it, and they chuckled. In fact, the scene was included, with little alteration, in the musical version of Pygmalion, the popular Broadway hit My Fair Lady.

It can be hazardous to take a serious look at something intended as a piece of comedy, but it just might be that Doolittle's bold defense of the undeserving poor is worthy of a bit of reflection. It is unlikely that Shaw, a committed utilitarian atheist, was consciously setting forth a principle of Christian charity. From his point of view, the idea that the undeserving poor should be treated on par with their more worthy counterparts is laughable — and contributes to the comedic impact of the scene. But perhaps his shabby and devious character Doolittle really did hit on an important Christian principle, albeit in a wildly twisted and self-serving way.

Who are the undeserving poor? The first requirement for membership in this group, obviously, is that one be poor, in the material sense. Second, one must be undeserving — undeserving of our alms, our support, our charity: The fundamental mark of the undeserving poor is a habitual failure to practice the virtues, especially the virtues of diligence and gratitude. The undeserving have a history of making bad choices, often motivated by hedonistic wants.

So we find it amusing when Doolittle insists that generous people should not discriminate against his kind. But perhaps we ought to ask whether Doolittle might be correct. Practical men might offer a quick answer: "No. Doolittle is incorrect. Resources are finite. If we help the undeserving, then it means less for the deserving, and that would be a violation of justice." That certainly sounds right. Ten thousand practical reasons could be given for concentrating our efforts to assist the deserving poor. As for the undeserving poor, well, they don't deserve anything — by definition.

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Bravo, Deacon Gregory...!

This really needed to be said.
Posted by: SoSideCubsFan
March 15, 2010 03:47 PM EDT
A fitting corrective to self-aggrandizing "giving," highly suitable for Lenten reflection. Posted by: Jack_Straw
March 29, 2010 02:31 PM EDT
While I would agree with you in regards to personal giving in a personal situation, I completely disagree with you in regards to an organization or institution such as The Church giving alms. Studies have shown that almsgiving does nothing to reduce numbers of poor or aid the impoverished over a long period of time. The term "poor" will take on different meanings in various cultures, but it is usually characterized by someone who has less than what is required to survive. In this case- food, not money would be a wise investment to give to the impoverished. Especially panhandlers. How about instead of merely giving the panhandler money, offer him a job as a housekeeper or in yard work? And when he denies your charity- "He who would not work, should not eat". Panhandlers generally bet on you not wanting to bother actually having them "Will Work for Food", but want the cash instead.

By all means 'give to the poor with an open hand' indeed, but I relish the adage "Give a man a fish, he eats for a day; Show a man how to fish, and he eats for a lifetime".

It is uncharitable to decline honest work for pay and instead merely demand money for your situation.

Granted, there are many who are mentally disadvantaged, and they should be helped without question- but to say you should not be prudent with how you give alms is silly.

The goal is indeed to reduce the number of poor, and those without the necessities of life against their own choice would disagree that it's a blessing to always have the poor.

Also, I fear your article would give some the wrong idea in that it's the governments job to give to the poor. This is shown to not help- study after study shows the uselessness of government in these regards- and I fear the socialism that results from handouts given human nature. It starts with the clarion call of "giving and social justice" and ends with a destroyed economy in socialism where everyone is forcibly made to be less than what they are capable of being.

If you make it easy to be dependent upon others' then you breed a cultural acceptance of infinitely falling standards.
Posted by: porgovan
March 29, 2010 08:47 PM EDT
The question who to help is obviously a hard one to answer and, in the end, God recognizes the intent of the donor. However, as the saying goes, God helps them who help themselves. Today, social justice, economic justice etc is often used by gov't as a ploy to redistribute wealth. Common sense is always a help in these cases. Perhaps the help/charity for the underserving poor is not alms, but to give them a job. Make them learn to work for their dinner. Posted by: awunsch
March 29, 2010 09:44 PM EDT
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