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. For more details about these concepts read:

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 employer’s 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 come 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.

14 thoughts on “Deserving VS Undeserving Poor

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  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.

    • I’m a Caucasian male in my mid-sixties. I was homeless for the better part of twelve years and have been successfully maintaining an apartment rental for just over a year. I was frequently awakened by cops in the middle of the night while I was sleeping. They searched my belongings (which I consider a violation of my 4th Amendment Rights) and then “ran my criminal record.” Fortunately, I didn’t have a criminal record, but I was a bit irked by the supposition that I might have been a criminal, even after I had clearly and cordially complied with their proceedings.

      I understand, however, that a large part of the homeless populace are actually of a criminal bent. This is true no matter how much we advocate for homeless rights. I met homeless people who had been brought up on the streets, whose mothers were hookers, whose dads were pimps, and who were taught how to steal laptops and cell phones in pairs from an early age. I also perceived that the conditions of homelessness easily drove many people to theft, partly because theft was often easy – all you had to do was quietly ransack a homeless person’s backpack whilst s(he) slept. So to deny that their is criminality among the homeless is unrealistic. I just didn’t happen to be one of them.

      What irked me the most, all that said, is that I was told to “Move On!” As though there were any other place I could sleep outdoors where the same thing were not likely to happen. If it wasn’t a cop awakening me, it was a security guard, a property owner, a business owner or employee, or (worst of all) another homeless person, claiming I had taken “his spot.” Let me also not exclude the gang bangers from another town who roughed up homeless people in their sleep, just for fun, and made off with as much gold as they could get.

      Finally, that I was awakened on Christmas Day by two rookie cops practicing was a particularly bad memory, and a sweep of the whole lot of us on Easter Sunday makes me particularly grateful to have a roof over my head. I prayed daily that God would provide me with a “lock on a door, a window, and a power outlet.” He was so gracious He provided me with exactly one power outlet, exactly one window, and a wonderfully grand total of three locks on my door. So thank God for answered prayers. He loved me when everyone else around me assumed I was a P.O.S.

  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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  7. As far as I’m concerned, since I owe $66K in student loan debt and completely my degree, I am most certainly owed something in return. Needless to say, if I assert such, it’s met with extreme loathing.

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