Throughout the historical landscape of the United States a dream has been engrained in a pseudo-American identity. Some call this the American dream; others might refer to it as the American fallacy. Unfortunately, people who experience poverty in the United States very rarely have the opportunity to call this dream a reality. The trajectory of the poor is contextualized inside of a dichotomy. This polarization is two fold: those who are “deserving” and those who are “undeserving.” Furthermore, due to this dichotomous assessment, over the last hundred years the struggle to be considered “deserving” has dictated and been interwoven into policy, public opinion, and political agendas.
The difference between who is considered the deserving or undeserving poor is based on two variables. The first variable is personal agency and the second is the external factors that are outside of an individual’s control. Personal agency can be defined as one’s individual decisions or choices that they make and are responsible for. Uncontrollable external factors can be defined as social/systemic barriers that individuals have no authority over. To be considered the “deserving poor” the roots of one’s poverty must derive from uncontrollable external factors that individuals experience and must not derive from that individual’s personal agency. Furthermore, when society sees poverty as a macro level issue, policy will be passed to give economic support to the deserving poor.
The deserving vs. undeserving debate was based focused personal agency in the mid to late 19th century. Historical figures like Amos Warner and Robert Hunter solidified an anti-welfare conversation. This discourse contended that public aid or government assistance welcomed political dishonesty and squandering. Warner believed whole-heartedly that if policies were created to give poor people aid, those individuals would prefer to do nothing and receive free support more often than they would take advantage of the opportunity to work. This idea has several implications of how poor people or those who receive aid— even in contemporary eras—are seen as lazy and taking advantage of the government. This same idea is seen in the image of the “welfare queen” which was used by Ronald Reagan to paint of picture of poor welfare recipients as individuals who use the government and do not work.
Through the fruition of Settlement Houses across the United States programs and policies brought reforms which included things like minimum wage for women and children, unemployment insurance, abolition of child labor, and racial justice. The settlement workers were some of the first to conceptualize the correlation between race, class and poverty as macro-level issues that were based on systemic barriers set in place, not a micro issue of individual agency or choice. This macro vs. micro debate is one that has sustained itself over a century. The settlement workers were not perfect, however, they did add some balance to this argument. Patterson writes that these settlement workers tried to “divest themselves of demeaning stereotypes about the poor and they to accept the lower classes. ‘Character,’ they recognized was largely a social creation.”
In 1996 after President Clinton signed the bill three senior official in DHHS resigned in protest. The protestors believed that the “abolishment of the entitlement to assistance, the five year hard time limit, and the block of granting funds would increase poverty among children. This process proves that when people begin to shift back to an idea that the poor people are poor because of their personal agency, social welfare policy will give less economic support.
President Clinton’s welfare reform was not as bad when the economy was going great. However now that we are in the grips of a recession the poor in the United States are experiencing the cold realities of abandonment. And now all we can do is “hope” that President Obama does not continue to ignore those who are most disenfranchised. If democracy and the promises of the “American dream” continues to fail everyday citizens then those citizens will inevitably rebel against the whole system. If we do not want a repeat of the London Riots here in the states something needs to change.