The Undeserving Poor
Posted on July 28, 2009
Do the undeserving poor deserve our help? After the bushfires, a young guy I know with a passion for snakes bought a snake tank and python with the bushfire money he got. Now, his house wasn’t damaged, his life wasn’t under threat, he lived further from the fire than I do! But he was able to get one of the cash handouts. Another lady, who was more affected, bought a car with hers, and then a few weeks lately crashed into a neighbour’s fence with it while under the influence. These neighbours of mine, in the eyes of many Australians, are the undeserving poor,
The “undeserving poor” is not a phrase that Jesus bandied around much, but it lurks whenever we talk of ‘helping the poor or ‘mutual obligation’. The ‘undeserving poor’ are those who are in poverty through, mainly, their own doing. They have wasted their stimulus package (and their baby bonus) on wild living, alcohol, drugs, junk food and pokies. On the other hand, the ‘deserving poor’ have made good with the little they’ve got from life, diligently saving what they can as they eat stale toast spread with a slither of Vegemite, or perhaps breathing raggedly though lungs destroyed by asbestos. The deserving poor are those who will, with our assistance, be good citizens. The black sheep, the undeserving poor, seem to us to just want to muck about in their squalor.
When Australians look to the global poor, they see (with the eyes of pity and compassion) the ‘deserving poor’, their lives ruined by tsunami, evil & corrupt politicians and civil war beyond their control. We like the deserving poor to stay where they are, and we like to help them. Once they start walking our neighbourhoods, they are usually headed to the ‘undeserving poor’ bin. When we look to our own neighbourhoods, we tend to see the undeserving poor – people who lack things but also seem to have opportunities they let slip, jobs they didn’t get…they are just not afflicted enough to gain our undying sympathy!
Why the difference in sympathy?
Hyperopia & Myopia refer to common problems with eyesight. Hyporopia, or long-sightedness, means you can see the child kidnapped to be a child soldier in Darfur but you can’t see the teenage mum captive to cycles of domestic violence – “Why doesn’t she just leave him?”. Myopia, or short-sightedness, means we see the ambiguity of a 21 y.o. single mum with 3 kids (one with a disability) spending half the stimulus package on drugs but the siphoning of our overseas aid money because of corruption seems just too hazy to really see.
I am convinced that people overseas deserve our assistance, but I am just as convinced the ‘undeserving poor’ deserve it too. The Incarnation of Christ into humanity means that Jesus came here to serve in the midst of ambiguity, not to ignore it. We can’t refuse to love and serve if people have mixed reasons for accepting help, or are not grateful. God loves especially the ‘undeserving’. How we live this out in practice is the long, and satisfying plough that we have put our hands to.