Seneca on the Deserving Poor

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.

Designing for Two Goals

“Savvy institutional designers,” Write Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson in The Elephant in the Brain, “must … identify both the surface goals to which people give lip service and the hidden goals that people are also trying to achieve. Designers can then search for arrangements that actually achieve the deeper goals while also serving the surface goals-or at least giving the appearance of doing so. Unsurprisingly, this is a much harder design problem. But if we can learn to do it well, our solutions will less often meet the fate of puzzling disinterest.”

 

In public policy research, there is a framework that is used to understand the legislative process called the Social Construction Framework (SCF). When examining the world through the SCF, we look at the recipients of particular policies and ask what social constructions are at play that shape the type of legislation surrounding these recipients. We also group the recipients into four broad groups: Advantaged, Contenders, Dependents, and Deviants.

 

Advantaged are those who have strong political power and public respect, like veterans and small business owners. Contenders have lots of political power, but are not viewed as warmly in the public eye, such as big business or unions. Dependents are socially sympathetic groups that don’t have much political power, such as sick children who can’t vote but evoke sympathy. The final group, Deviants, are socially scorned and politically weak, such as criminals or drug users.

 

The way we think about who belongs to which group is a social construction. That is, we attribute positive or negative qualities to groups to make them seem more or less deserving. Businesses always highlight the jobs they bring to communities, the innovations they create to make our lives better, and the charitable activities they contribute to. This is all an effort to move from a Contender status to an Advantaged status. Similarly, we see movements where people look at drug addicts and criminals in new ways, seeing them more as victims of circumstance than as entirely bad actors, moving them from Deviants to Dependents.

 

The reason this is important is because we introduce policies that either reward or punish people based on the groups they belong to. It all ties in with the quote from the book because we can either openly distribute a reward or punishment or distribute it in a hidden manner. Our policies might have stated explicit goals, but they may also provide a big business a hidden tax break. Our policies might be unpopular if they directly provide aid to former felons as they leave prison, but offering policy that is nominally intended to help the poor may provide a greater benefit to formerly incarcerated individuals than anyone else.

 

Hanson and Simler call for more sophisticated policy design that addresses our stated high-minded motivations and at the same time helps fulfill our more selfish and below the surface policy goals. SCF is a powerful framework to keep in mind as we try to develop policies and think about ways to actually enact policy that has both open surface level implications and addresses our deeper hidden purposes. This can, of course, be used for good or for ill, just as the tax code can be used to hide tax breaks for unpopular companies or help new homeowners, and just as social programs can be used as cover to assist individuals who are typically seen as Deviants.