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December 13, 2011

The Undeserving Poor: A Comparative Analysis of Welfare Policy in 1601 and 2011

As America has continued to develop as a country, its social ideologies have continued to change as well. The first major welfare reform in the United States occurred in 1601 and was known as the Elizabethan Poor Law. This law began a new way of thinking about poor people as it characterized them as either deserving or undeserving. Based on these stratifications, different types of assistance were given. Since 1601, much has changed, but the philosophy of a deserving and undeserving poor has remained. The idea of an undeserving poor has posed as an interesting problem in both 1601 and today. The government has struggled with the questions such as: what kind of welfare and how much welfare should the government provide? And the greatest question of all is: has our poverty policy really changed over the last 400 years?

After the reformation occurred, Queen Elizabeth I established the Church of England and much changed in society, including poor laws. In the 1500s, there had been rampant inflation which caused more poverty than ever, and people did not know how to react to it (Hanson 1997). They even had outlawed begging. According to Bloy (2002), the poor had previously been cared for by the church based on the 7 corporal works of mercy. Beginning in 1552, new laws began to form regarding the poor and were consolidated into one bill; it was known as the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601. Some of its provisions included that the poor must register at the parish, money could be raised for the poor by the justice of the peace, a poor law tax and a job entitled overseer of the poor were introduced (2 people were elected for this unpaid position each Easter and they would calculate how much money the poor needed, collect the taxes, supervise the poorhouses, and distribute resources), and the poor were categorized. Jansson (2009) suggests that these categories included: those who would like to work but could not based on climate or lack of jobs (deserving poor), those who were too old or ill to work (deserving poor), and those who were able to work but would not (idle poor).

During this time, the idle were humiliated and whipped in the streets and placed in workhouses and poorhouses to help them learn (Bloy 2002). The able-bodied were given outdoor relief, in the form of money and clothes, and they continued to live at home. The ill and elderly were placed in almshouses, hospitals, or orphanages. The children of the poor were often given to others to learn a trade and become an apprentice. There were many differences in how the parishes enacted these laws because there was no one to enforce the law. For example, if the parishes lacked funds and could not provide for the poor, then the county was required to provide relief (Jansson 2009). This law was a huge change because it gave the government the responsibility for the poor instead of the church. This law also encouraged family members to care for their poor.

Criticisms of the law included that the taxes were based on land, so not everyone paid as much in taxes (Bloy 2002). It helped the commercial and industrial citizens because it didn’t take personal or moveable wealth into consideration. According to Hanson (1997), one of the reasons for change in philosophy about the poor in the 1600s was the move from the idea of collectivism to individualism and self-reliance during the time period.

Although the Elizabethan Poor Law was English legislation, the ideas of the importance of individualism and self-reliance were carried across the ocean to the new colonies that would soon become the United States. Because of the increasing importance of individualism, it makes sense that the stratifications of a deserving and undeserving poor would dominate the characteristics of those living in poverty.
The qualifications for the deserving and undeserving poor are currently similar to those of 1601. While in 1601, the qualifications for the deserving poor accounted for age, illness, climate, and lack of employment opportunities, current views of the deserving poor based on current welfare reform simply account for if the person is able-bodied (Hanson 1997). Today’s view of poverty, based on the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF,) does not always take into account whether a person is able-minded or able-cultured because of growing-up in poverty. Although Social Workers recognize that poverty is an “institutional structure that denies equal opportunity to the lower classes, often exacerbated by racial discrimination”, the majority of the population does not recognize this as an important factor as a cause of poverty (Hanson 1997). Also, just as the poor in 1601 were mocked through whippings, the poor today are portrayed in a negative fashion and often ignored or spoken of with disdain.

Current legislation is based on the PRWORA which is largely based on work requirements and an idea of self-empowerment through work (Administration of Children and Families 1996). Working families are allowed time-limited assistance that includes child support funding and medical coverage. Each state is also given bonuses for helping families find employment. With this act, families must work after receiving two years of assistance. Single parents must work 20 hours per week during the first year and two parent families must work 35 hours per week. Families are given one year of transitional help through Medicaid, and mothers are exempt from working if they have a child under the age of one or if they have a child under the age of six and cannot find childcare. Also, families can only have cash assistance for up to five cumulative years. After that, states can provide state funds or non-cash assistance. The state assesses individual’s skills and helps families to formulate a plan. The legislation also enforces child support laws with state to state registries and harsh penalties which include seizing assets for parents who are not paying child support.

Another welfare reform, TANF, was passed in 2006 that accounted for the same values as PRWORA (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 2008). TANF is responsible for administration of programs and social security. States are given funds to implement their own welfare programs as they see fit. It replaced the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), Job Opportunity and Basic Skill Training (JOBS), and Emergency Assistance (EA) in the PRWORA. Similar to PRWORA, the main focus of TANF is to help families attain self-sufficiency. The mission of TANF is to create welfare legislation, present this legislation to the director, oversee the programs implemented by the organization, and to provide leadership.

Welfare legislation continues to change, and recently the welfare reform act of 2011 was introduced. This legislation builds on PRWORA and now requires families who use food stamps to work or prove that they are trying to find work. This act was created as a way of helping families empower themselves by becoming independent without government assistance (The Caucus of House Conservatives 2011). According to Michigan governor, Rick Snyder, cash assistance has been misused in the past and needs to return to a transitional program that leads working families toward self-sufficiency (Luke 2011). Snyder also discussed the problem of able-bodied people taking advantage of the welfare system and staying on it for up to 14 years. Based on the concern of people taking advantage of the welfare system, he signed legislation that will enforce a 48 month cap on cash assistance. However, Snyder says that the affected families will “receive extended job and housing placement assistance for three months…and funds are targeted toward those recipients who need a helping hand while they find employment” (Luke 2011).

Similar to the Elizabethan Act of 1601, Snyder’s new bill categorizes the deserving poor as those with disabilities and people who are elderly, at least 65 and with little social security (Luke 2011). And although, Snyder also provides exemptions for those suffering from domestic violence, he does not account for the current lack of jobs due to outsourcing and de-industrialization, nor does he account for factors such as climate, which are important for employment opportunities such as farming and construction, which are seasonal. Criticism of current welfare reform also includes that the new legislation does not take into account people who are suffering from mental or physical illnesses (Deparle 2009).

Another important difference between the 1601 act and today’s welfare reform is who is providing the assistance. In 1601, the federal government gained control of assisting those living in poverty, where the churches had previously cared for the poor. Current welfare reform gives the federal government control of food stamps, while the states maintain the cash assistance programs (Deparle 2009). Because of this, the number of case loads in each state can be a great determinant in the amount of funding that families can receive.

Although there are many similarities between current welfare reforms and those of 1601, one of the most drastic differences lies in our perception of the effectiveness of these reforms. For example, the poverty witnessed in 1601 was a new concept, as the population had currently been organized around a Feudal system in which serfs were cared for by their masters. Although the serfs may not have owned land, their needs were met by the families in which they worked. The concept of poverty in 1601 was a direct result of the end of the Feudal system, and the churches and government struggled to find appropriate ways to assist these needy families. It is shocking that 400 years later, the government still does not know how to account for families living in poverty. Although there are new statistics of people being taken off of welfare rolls, it is only because they no longer qualify for assistance. It does not mean that they no longer live in poverty. Just because the government changes the definition of poverty, it does not mean that there are less people suffering.
Not only is it shocking that policies have remained the same, but it is also shocking that the government still stratifies populations of people as deserving an undeserving. The underlying assumption that the poor are lazy and do not want to work is a misled idea that has hindered the welfare state for hundreds of years and needs to be challenged.

Although it seems obvious to Social Workers, the general public needs to be educated about the causes of poverty and the underlying structures that make it impossible to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps”. The greatest problem in fighting poverty both today and in 1601 is that the poor are not heard. Their voices are not often represented in a political vote, and because of this, lobbyists for the wealthy are able to better the outcomes for the wealthy (Hanson 1997). According to anthropologist, Oscar Lewis, poverty is difficult to overcome because it is its own culture. People are born into it and grow up with a certain mentality based on an unprotected childhood, psychological distress, feelings of inferiority, and family stress. Neither in 1601, nor today, are these factors beings accounted for within the welfare system. In 1601, when welfare was new, it is more acceptable because of a lack of knowledge about poverty. However, in 2011, this excuse is no longer acceptable.

In order to help those living in poverty, the welfare system needs to be reformed. Instead of having a reluctant welfare system, the United States needs to adopt a generous welfare system that actually takes into consideration the needs of the poor. Creating laws which prohibit corporations from moving their businesses out of the country will create jobs, and enforcing a higher wage will prohibit exploitative behaviors of corporations. Finally, cash assistance should be given out more abundantly and with longer time constraints because finding a job is more difficult than the government likes to believe. With these reforms to the welfare system, the lives of many will improve significantly. It is time for change. It is time to actually help families in poverty.

Administration of Children and Families. (1996). The personal responsibility and work opportunity reconciliation act of 1996. Fact Sheet. Accessed October 7, 2011.
Bloy, M. (2002). The 1601 Elizabethan Poor Law. The Victorian Web. C:\Users\Lissie\Downloads\tbglenn_91811_144915The_1601_Elizabethan_Poor_Law (2).mht. Accessed October 7, 2011.
The Caucus of House of Conservatives . (2011). Welfare reform act of 2011: The most effective welfare benefit is the one that leads to a job. Accessed October 7, 2011.
Deparle, J. (2009). Welfare Aid Isn’t Growing as Economy Drops Off. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/02/us/02welfare.html?partner=rss&emc= rss&pagewanted=all. Accessed October 10, 2011.
Hanson, F. A. (1997). How Poverty Lost its Meaning. The Cato Journal, 17, 2. Accessed October 7, 2011.
Jansson, B. S. (2009). Fashioning a new society in the wilderness. The Reluctant Welfare State,7th ed. 64-65.
Luke, P. (2011). Gov. Rick Snyder says Michigan welfare system returned 'to its original intent' after signing law putting tighter 48-month limit on benefits. http://www.mlive.com/politics/index.ssf/2011/09/gov_rick_snyder_signs_tougher.html. Accessed October 10, 2011.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2008). About TANF. Administration for Family and Children. Accessed October 10, 2011.

Posted by desolada at December 13, 2011 09:55 AM


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