Seneca on the Deserving Poor

I really enjoyed studying public policy at the University of Nevada, especially when I had a chance to dive into Social Construction Framework as a way to understand the legislative process. Social Construction Framework (SCF) posits that the way we think about the targets of a policy, that is the characteristics and traits that we ascribe to the population who will be rewarded or punished by a policy, determines how we structure the policy and how likely the policy is to be passed by a legislature. The world is too complex for us to have nuanced, detailed, and accurate understandings of everyone and everything, and so we make shortcuts. These heuristics help us understand the decisions we have to make, and we bring them into the political arena with stereotypes and simplifications of people and social processes. The final policy that we enact is not an objective and scientific product of rational thought about the complex nature of humanity and the universe, but is instead based on these heuristics and social constructions.


It is in this framework that I have recently been thinking more about the deserving poor. I have recently done a bit of reading into homelessness, and there is a tension in America in terms of the social constructions attached to homelessness. The homeless can be seen as deserving of aid because (now two) economic downturns have wrecked their financial opportunities or because they faced parental abandonment or abuse growing up, and never got off to a good start. Alternatively, we can see the poor as undeserving, because we think they may be lazy, may be drug users, and might just make poor decisions and they need to pay the consequences. These two ways of conceptualizing the homeless play into the SCF and determine whether we pass policies that help them or punish them.


SCF is relatively new and isn’t something that is discussed by the broad public very often. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t think in ways that are described by SCF, and it doesn’t mean that these ways of thinking are new to Americans in the 21st century. Seneca, in his book Letters From a Stoic wrote, “My situation … is the same as that of many who are reduced to slender means through no fault of their own: everyone forgives them, but no one comes to their rescue.”


What Seneca describes is the way that we see poor people who face economic hardship through unlucky situations as being deserving of aid. As opposed to those who lose a fortune gambling, making bad investments with grifters, or appear to be poor due to personal flaws like laziness, those who lose their fortune due to an unpredictable cancer diagnosis, the tragic loss of a loved one, or a sudden natural disaster are viewed as less blameworthy. They are somehow deserving of sympathy and aid, but often times, these individuals are politically weak. Children don’t have much ability to shape public policy because they can’t vote, but they are a sympathetic constituency. The same may go for the elderly poor, widowed wives of military veterans, or people with disabilities. They are socially praised, or at least not blamed for their dire situations as Seneca noted, but that doesn’t mean they are likely to get a lot of help.


Because these groups are well liked, we don’t actively make things more difficult for them, the way we would for people convicted of violent crime or for drug users. But because they don’t contribute a lot to society (in the views of most people) and because they don’t have a lot of political power, they often receive positive rhetoric from elected officials and members of the public in general, but they don’t often receive much aid. This was true when Seneca was writing his letters which became a book, and it is still true today. Viewing people as deserving or undeserving goes back a long way, and we should work to be consciously aware of how we think about groups, and what policy we put forward based on how we understand a group’s level of deservingness.

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