Longmore on The Worthy Poor
FROM AN INTERVIEW WITH Paul Longmore, 1997
The problem of modern social welfare policies in the 19th and 20th centuries comes to be how do you define, how do you identify, who's worthy of relief and who's unworthy? The assumption of poor relief and modern social welfare policies was that somebody with a real disability must be incapacitated for work. But then you have to weed out from among that group those who may be faking their disabilities or not have a disability significant enough that they're incapable of working. There's an assumption that there are going to be a lot of people who are trying to manipulate the system, trying to fake their way out of the job market, and into what one scholar has called the "need-based" system.
The result is that over a long period of time various kinds of measurements and standards of eligibility are formulated, and this is why social welfare policies resorted to a medical definition of disability, hoping that it could provide some kind of scientific precision, and quantifiable measurement of disability, so that it could be effectively and objectively determined who was eligible. They're saying that people with what we would now call medical conditions, people with these physical conditions, are probably incapable of taking care of themselves. So, they would be entitled to poor relief, to home relief. They're the worthy poor, the dependent poor.
There are two assumptions in the phrase "worthy poor," I think. One is that there are unworthy poor people, who, it's assumed, are poor because of some kind of willfulness, perversity, laziness, refusal to be productive and support themselves. They're the able-bodied poor. They're usually categorized that way, too. They're not worthy of social aid in the form of poor relief, and they need to be disciplined and controlled, and forced back into the labor market. The other assumption is, that the so-called worthy poor are people who are incapacitated and incapable of supporting themselves, probably due to sickness, disability, or old age. And what happens, more and more as time goes on, is that those so-called worthy poor are in their own way stigmatized. They become the embodiment, literally the embodiment, of the opposite of what legitimate members of society are supposed to be. They become the epitome of incapacity and social incompetency and of dependency, and if there's anything that's devalued in American culture, it is and always has been dependency. It would be hard to exaggerate the degree to which independence, autonomy, self-sufficiency, are valued and rewarded in American culture, and the degree to which people who are defined as dependent are devalued in this society.
If you're going to try to keep poor people who are allegedly able to work out of the welfare system and in the job market by saying the worthy poor are those who are incapable of work, because of illness or disability, then what you also have to do is make sure that it's just as hard for those sick or disabled people to get out of the welfare system and back into the job market as it is for people to get into the welfare system in the first place. It has to be really hard, and stigmatized, to become eligible for poor relief or welfare, and it also has to be very hard for you, once you've been qualified as disabled, and therefore incapable of working, to get back into the job market.
And that, in fact, has been the history of social welfare for people with disabilities. The policies had built into them, for a long time, what had euphemistically been called "work disincentives." They're penalties for people who are disabled, and who are recipients of that assistance, they're penalized, if they try to work productively.