Toward the end of last summer, Fox News aired a nine-minute segment featuring a 29-year-old surfer in La Jolla, California, named Jason Greenslate. Not only did Greenslate possess certain qualities that seemed designed to enrage the cable channel’s over-65 demographic—long hair, mirrored sunglasses, a languid grin—but this particular surfer dude also happened to receive $200 a month in food assistance, some of which he spent on sushi and fresh lobster. Footage showed Greenslate driving a black Cadillac truck, jamming with his skate-punk band and generally enjoying himself. Close-ups of the offending shellfish were dutifully provided. (“It’s free food,” Greenslate said obligingly. “It’s awesome.”) Meanwhile, an on-screen graphic reminded viewers of The Great Food Stamp Binge.
Greenslate quickly became a talking point for Republican lawmakers, who cited his gourmet diet and cheerful indifference to a steady paycheck as evidence of a social welfare state run amok. In September, a month after the Fox News segment aired, House Republicans voted to slash food assistance by $40 billion. A GOP memo even mentioned “young surfers who aren’t working but cash their food stamps in for lobster”—as if one surfer in La Jolla had somehow self-replicated. Never mind that Greenslate was hardly representative of anyone other than himself: nine out of ten food stamp recipients live in a household with a child, a senior citizen or someone with a disability. The caricature he provided—vulgar, cocky, altogether annoying—was too perfect, and too useful. (Greenslate later told reporters that he had agreed to Fox News’s request in hopes of getting publicity for his band.) And so Lobster Boy joined the Welfare Queen in the ranks of America’s undeserving poor.
Being poor in the United States has rarely been taken to mean anything so simple as having too little money. Americans have long distinguished between those who deserve public or private charity and those who don’t. In the latest edition of The Undeserving Poor, first published in 1989, the historian Michael B. Katz writes about “the enduring attempt to classify poor people by merit.” This impulse is driven partly by policy calculations: given that resources are finite, how can the people who most need help get it? But the distinctions are often laced with moralism, too: Who are the real victims—the worthy ones? Who are the moochers trying to game the system? The deserving poor have typically included widows and children, along with “a few others whose lack of responsibility for their condition cannot be denied.” Katz says the working poor of today have also elicited some sympathy and support, though if our current political impasse is any indication—twenty-five Republican-controlled states have rejected Medicaid expansion, effectively shutting out half of all low-wage earners in the country from any kind of insurance coverage—that sympathy and support seem to come from just one side of the aisle.
There was a time when being poor didn’t carry the same stigma that it does now. Before the abundance of the twentieth century, poverty was ubiquitous as well as inevitable. American poor laws in the nineteenth century made the poor a community responsibility, with the result that local authorities (in what seems like a grim prelude to the pre-Obamacare insurance rolls) would dispatch their elderly or infirm to another town in an attempt to avoid paying for their care. Still, poverty wasn’t considered a deviant condition. “Resources were finite; life was harsh,” Katz writes. “Most people, as the bible predicted, would be born, live, and die in poverty.”