No, There Is No Such Thing as the Undeserving Poor

In October this year, the Australian Financial Review published an opinion piece entitled “Why you shouldn’t underestimate the underclass” by former Liberal Party minister Pru Goward. The underclass is, according to Goward, “damaged, lacking in trust and discipline,” and “highly self-interested.”

In Australia, Goward’s op-ed attracted widespread condemnation for spreading offensive stereotypes about poor people — and rightly so. The piece is a muddled exercise in bashing working-class Australians; its arguments are intellectually incoherent and empirically unsupported.

Of course, these are the kinds of invectives that we have come to expect from garden-variety Liberal Party ideologues like Andrew Bolt or Peta Credlin. But Prue Goward is no shock jock; she is part of the social policy elite. She served as a minister in the New South Wales state government from 2011 to 2019, after which Western Sydney University appointed her Professor of Social Interventions and Policy.

Goward’s perspective is a rehashed version of the culture of poverty discourse, the mainstay of right-wingers across the anglophone world. Indeed, the fact that Goward’s view is mainstream within Australia’s political elite shows their intellectual poverty. Incapable of providing a plausible account of poverty, they turn instead to vacuous rationalizations in order to justify ruling-class power.

At no point in her article does Goward clearly define the term “underclass,” which her essay is ostensibly an attempt to discuss. She insists that she isn’t talking about the broader working class, or even regular poor people. The latter, she claims, are generally conscientious. Rather, she describes the underclass as “often damaged and almost entirely lacking discipline.”

This approach aligns with that of political scientist Lawrence Mead, the intellectual father of contemporary conservative welfare policy. Mead defines the underclass as the subset of poor people “with the most severe behavioral problems,” who are generally “welfare dependent” and who “usually do not work.”

At the same time, Goward uses the term “underclass” interchangeably with the “proles,” borrowing from George Orwell’s contraction of “proletariat” in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Goward even begins her article with the famous quote “If there is hope, it lies in the proles.” The rest of the sentence, omitted by Goward, goes on to tell us that the proles make up “85 percent of the population.” “Why you shouldn’t underestimate the underclass” leaves unclear whether its subject is the long-term unemployed with behavioral problems, a small section of society, or a much broader social layer.

Unencumbered by definitions, Goward continues. She asserts that “because they don’t like being told what to do,” members of the underclass formed “a significant part of the anti-vax protests.” Does this mean Goward thinks unemployed people led the recent anti-vax protests? If so, she provides no evidence to support this. A hyperlink in the passage in which she makes this bold claim takes the reader to an article blaming unionized construction workers for these protests. It feels too obvious to point out that construction workers are conventionally working class and hardly part of an underclass.

Goward’s claim that members of the underclass dislike being told what to do evokes the generic stereotype of an Aussie larrikin — a rowdy and uncultivated person. Elsewhere she refers to resistance from the underclass to “patronizing do-gooders.” But none of these attitudes are particular to an underclass of dysfunctional nonworkers.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that “underclass” is a catchall for people Goward feels are below her station and therefore undeserving. Revealingly, Goward describes the underclass as the people her mother called “not nice.” Others heard her elitist dog whistle. Writing in the West Australian, Jenna Clarke interprets Goward’s piece as referring to “bogans.”

Even Goward’s daughter Tziporah Malkah, who works as a traffic controller, picked up on the smear. “I’m probably a prole,” she said, adding, “though, to be honest, I don’t even really know what that means.”

Goward’s patronizing, disciplinarian tone brings to mind a schoolmarm or senior welfare bureaucrat who carries around a mental list of problem kids or welfare recipients. It’s not surprising, given Goward was variously minister for community services, mental health, and social housing in a conservative government.

It’s important to remember that poor and marginalized people are held to very different moral standards than those that apply to Liberal Party politicians. To illustrate the point, imagine a hypothetical recipient of the JobSeeker unemployment benefit who has concealed that they have a partner in order to avoid their payment being cut. Goward would likely condemn this hypothetical person as a welfare cheat. She would see any excuses they made as an attempt to evade personal responsibility.

Now compare this to the treatment received by Goward’s onetime boss, former New South Wales premier Gladys Berejiklian. The ex-politician also concealed a romantic relationship, but at far greater cost to the public. To be sure, Berejiklian is not a cartoon villain; there was something relatable about how she hid her affair with former Liberal MP Daryl Maguire. Nevertheless, when her dishonesty was exposed, she received an outpouring of sympathy from across the political spectrum. Supporters held vigils outside her office while commentators heaped effusive praise on Berejiklian’s integrity. It’s hard to imagine a welfare recipient who has lied to obtain a marginally higher payment being treated this way.

In fact, we don’t need to imagine any such thing. Between 2015 and 2019, the federal Coalition government maintained the “robodebt” scheme that used algorithms to impose debts on welfare recipients, officially for having misreported their income. The algorithm’s design, however, resulted in a large share of false positives, which were sometimes impossible to disprove if records were lost.

Scott Morrison’s government has since settled a class action lawsuit launched by victims of the scheme, agreeing to wipe $1.8 billion worth of false debts imposed on 443,000 people. In retrospect, the robodebt scheme was designed to punish the poor. It could well be described as theft.

If the Australian Taxation Office applied the same treatment to big businesses — many of which do evade their tax obligations — the Liberals would lead an uproar. This reveals the insidious and usually unspoken presumption that poor people’s assets are illegitimate and undeserved, pitiful though they may be. The rich, by contrast, are assumed to be deserving of whatever wealth they have in their possession. Even though the social and economic order regards ownership as sacrosanct, the sanctity of poor people’s property is often ignored.

When the poor encounter unexpected hardship or make bad life choices, the consequences are often more obvious and disastrous. This is the source of many of the worst stereotypes about poor people. Of course, rich people make bad decisions and encounter adverse circumstances. The main difference is that poor people lack a financial buffer, turning small mistakes or hardships into catastrophes.

Falling sick or suffering from a gambling addiction can mean failing to pay rent, often leading to eviction and a downward spiral. Unlike the wealthy, poor people can’t cloak their human frailties or vulnerabilities with money. Consequently, when Goward chastises the underclass for being “last to give up smoking” and “eat two servings of vegetables a day,” she is expressing the elitist moralism of the rich.

Perhaps unconsciously, she also evokes another Orwell classic, The Road to Wigan Pier. Orwell, however, understood the reality encountered by poor people. Discussing the diet of an unemployed miner’s family, Orwell says:

When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit “tasty.” There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. . . . Unemployment is an endless misery that has got to be constantly palliated.

Orwell’s empathy is worlds apart from Goward’s snobbish finger-wagging. Orwell understands that behavior that might seem shortsighted or even self-destructive should be understood as a reasonable response to deprivation.

This has not been lost on social scientists. Nobel Prize–winning economists Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo praise The Road to Wigan Pier as “masterful” and as anticipating subsequent empirical discoveries in economics. What looks like bad behavior can have a hidden rationality when understood in context. After all, the desire for pleasure and excitement is normal, and is just as legitimate as the need for good health and financial stability.

Poor people have access to fewer opportunities to enjoy themselves and reduced means to mitigate the impacts of forms of enjoyment that are harmful to health. It’s all very well to sneer at poor people who smoke or eat junk food from Sydney’s leafy North Shore. But up close, these choices make sense because they are small and relatively affordable pleasures in a world that’s otherwise full of stress and deprivation.

A similar logic applies to long-term planning. Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan and Princeton psychologist Eldar Shafir point out that being overloaded beyond our “mental bandwidth” can compromise decision-making skills. For poor people, reality is often “a continuous life of firefighting and juggling.” This can make future planning a luxury, compared with the need to cope with the here and now. For Mullainathan and Shafir, this means that welfare systems should avoid complicating poor people’s lives and instead be “fault tolerant.”

The poor differ from the well-off in one key respect: they have less money. There’s a simple solution to this problem. Society should give poor people more money, with fewer strings attached.

This is anathema to how conservatives like Goward and Mead think about welfare. They argue that the underclass is categorically different from the other classes, distinguished primarily by its members’ behavioral problems. As Mead writes,

The question is how to deal with the problems of basic functioning among the seriously poor. The social, more than the economic, structure of society is at issue. The focus is on troubled individuals or ethnic groups, rather than industry, agriculture, or the relations of labor and management. Social problems are no longer seen to stem directly from injustice, nor are they obviously reformable. So social policy must focus on motivation and order rather than opportunity or equality.

In short, for conservatives, poor people don’t need money — they need discipline. The “poor and dependent,” according to Mead, “are controversial mostly because they do so little to help themselves.” Unsurprisingly, this attitude quickly slips into racism. As Mead continues, the “greatest cause of today’s poverty may simply be that attempts . . . to equalize opportunity have failed to persuade many blacks and Hispanics that it is worth working.”

This is why Mead — like the Liberal Party — supports making welfare contingent on satisfying onerous disciplinary requirements. While Mead’s big-stick approach is intuitive to those who assume personal vice in the poor, it flies in the face of the evidence.

Even when welfare recipients do struggle with behavioral problems, bureaucratic hoop-jumping and the threat of being cut off is not a solution. These demands take up mental energy and get in the way of people’s ability to manage difficult circumstances and plan for the future. Time is precious for everyone, but especially to the poor, for whom it’s also often most scarce. Indeed, when welfare recipients have their payments cut off, it’s more likely to drive them into a downward spiral.

Conservative supporters of punitive welfare policies are unable to muster much evidence that their hard-line approach helps. There is, however, voluminous evidence for the efficacy of generous social spending, from health and education to unconditional cash transfer programs.

Indeed, there’s even evidence to suggest that cash transfers reduce the amount people spend on goods that are harmful to their health. A 2017 meta-analysis of nineteen studies found that “on average cash transfers have a significant negative effect on total expenditures on temptation goods” such as alcohol and tobacco. By contrast, for years researchers have studied Australia’s income management schemes. Their results are consistently unimpressive. For Liberal Party policymakers, however, this doesn’t matter. After all, these schemes have nothing to do with recipient well-being — instead they are grounded in class prejudice.

Lawrence Mead advocates for a reactionary and harmful social agenda. But at least he can clearly define what he’s talking about. By contrast, Goward’s opinion piece repeats Mead’s ruling-class ideology but without its coherence. At the end, we aren’t even sure exactly which social ill Goward thinks she is trying to diagnose. All that comes through is her scattergun contempt for everyone she regards as her social inferior. These people include the long-term unemployed, those who are criminalized and marginalized, and the broader working class.

It also makes you wonder about how deserving Goward is of the many opportunities life has handed her. Western Sydney University appointed her to head an “Evidence Bank” tasked with assembling evidence to develop “groundbreaking” programs for the prevention of “complex social problems.” And yet Goward’s resentful brain dump failed dismally to communicate expertise, cite evidence, or demonstrate a basic understanding of sociological categories.

Perhaps we should talk less about the undeserving poor and more about the undeserving rich. Social policy is too important to leave in the hands of overpromoted ruling-class mediocrities. We would do well to remember that just as poverty can give rise to stereotypes that obscure the humanity of the poor, wealth and phony job titles often conceal the self-centered amateurism of the ruling class.


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