Deserving VS Undeserving Poor

The following terms are drawn directly from Victorian Era British Law, but continue to be utilized here in the USA when addressing poverty in relation to society, politics, and resource options. If you are sensitive about stereotypes, Class Discrimination or Classism, the following descriptions may be hard to read; however, survival is dependent upon a clear understanding of reality, and this is what poverty survivors face today.

Deserving Poor

The Expectations: Words and phrases are commonly used to describe the ‘deserving’:

  • Connected: Has family or community support or socially acceptable human connections.
  • Entertaining: Fun. Makes people laugh. Useful at a social function or a party. Good source of entertainment.
  • Complimentary: Makes people ‘feel good.’
  • Polite: Makes people feel comfortable. Not scary. Does not swear or get angry.
  • Good Person: Has well behaved children. Lives a socially acceptable lifestyle. Participates in a socially acceptable religion. Holds appropriate religious or political views. Attends religious events. (Note: This is most applicable when interacting with members of religion-based charities.)
  • Proud: Does not accept charity. Always physically clean and nicely dressed in well-maintained clothes. However, wearing clothes that appear to be new or expensive may bring into question the applicant’s actual level of need.
  • Grateful: Goes out of their way to thank the individual or organization for the assistance. Makes the giver ‘feel good’ about the donation. Publicly complimentary of organization, services and persons involved.
  • High Potential: Investing in this person presents the possibility of a success story for the charity or government organization.

The Image: Establishing and protecting a reputation is more important than most people realize.

  • Resources: Decisions about who actually receives the resources provided by a wide variety of agencies are made by people. If the people making those decisions think an individual deserves help, the likelihood of help being provided significantly increases. Therefore, it is extremely important to foster a deserving image among helping professionals (e.g.: homeless shelter workers, government employees, social workers, etc.). Negative rumors spread by community members often get back to resource decision makers with destructive consequences.
  • Employment: Finding a job while homeless or living in poverty requires overcoming the employers stereotypes about poor people. A positive reputation in the community at large and among helping professionals can be crucial.
  • Housing: Housing is addressed separately and landlords managing properties serving homeless or low income individuals do not follow the same rules or regulations as public assistance. If (when) the housing is no longer paid for by government agencies or non-profits, then the prejudices and expectations of regular-market landlords comes into play. A positive reputation will directly affect the apartment seeking process.
  • Police Harassment: All members of the lower class are considered suspect by the police. Those deemed ‘deserving’ are given slightly more latitude and respect by police officers. It will not stop the watchful-eye placed on all poverty survivors. It certainly does not eliminate the possibility of being detained, questioned and arrested for minor offenses including ‘loitering‘ and ‘trespassing,’ which are common excuses for rounding up homeless people and roughly translate into being in the wrong place at the wrong time. However, being identified as deserving by the police does increase the possibility of falling below the proverbial radar, which reduces the possibility of being arrested.

Undeserving Poor

This is a label that must be avoided whenever and wherever possible. The following words and phrases are commonly used to describe the ‘undeserving’:

  • Ungrateful: Thinks he or she is owed something. Does not express appropriate levels of thanks or gratitude for assistance.
  • Scary: Angry personality. Negative attitude. Overly aggressive verbal or physical habits. Makes respectable people ‘feel unsafe.’
  • Not Fun: Does not make people laugh. Boring. Depressing. Not good at networking or entertaining.
  • Bad Person: Lives a socially unacceptable lifestyle. Follows an unacceptable religion. Has made bad decisions, particularly when there are children involved.
  • Lazy: Not interested in working or getting a job. Poor work ethic.
  • Low Potential: Investing in this person will not result in a success story for the charity or government organization.
  • Criminal: Thief, drug dealer, con artist, not-trustworthy and generally incapable of living an honest life. Maintains a ‘criminal‘ appearance.

8 thoughts on “Deserving VS Undeserving Poor

  1. Pingback: How To Help Someone Facing Homelessness | Adora Myers

  2. This is as cold-blooded as it needs to be. I have been poor the bulk of my life and I cannot argue with any of these definitions. Particularly important to me is the “police harassment” piece. “All members of the lower class are considered suspect by the police” rings true with me. Others may not realize that, or they might think it only applies to racial or ethnic minority people. Experience says it always applies, and in ways that white, middle-or-upper-class people may never experience. While being a minority often makes the suspicion automatic, this also applies to lower class white people, and there are more of us than of any given racial or ethnic minority.

  3. It really is unfortunate. The people who need the most help from everyone (police included) are the same people who are auto-labeled ‘the enemy’. People frequently confuse the class-based police harassment with racial harassment because of the exceptionally nasty behavior of police officers in urban, non-white, poor neighborhoods. While the race-based harassment is both real and just-plain-wrong, it is a different issue. Harassment of poverty survivors (ALL poverty survivors) is very real and equally wrong.


    Ugh. I’m falling back on carefully worded academic prose because I feel like I have to be super careful about what I say. It’s like I’m homeless (again, after all these years) and I’m facing a police officer who is going out of his/her way to make my life in hell even worse: Speak carefully, remain extremely respectful, do whatever it takes to appear non-threatening, chose every word and facial expression very VERY carefully…

    Some lessons never leave you, no matter how much you want them to take a long vacation and never return.

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