“The idea that poverty is a problem of persons—that it results from personal moral, cultural, or biological inadequacies—has dominated discussions of poverty for well over two hundred years and given us the enduring idea of the undeserving poor.”
—Michael Katz, The Undeserving Poor
In a recent op-ed, New York Times columnist David Brooks called for a “moral revival,” one which requires “holding people responsible” so that we have “social repair.”
To illustrate the need for said revival—which he frames as a reassertion of social norms—Brooks offers what he describes as three “representative figures” of “high school-educated America”: a man whose mother was absent, Dad is in prison, attended seven elementary schools, and “ended up under house arrest”; a girl who was “one of five half-siblings from three relationships,” whose mom lost custody of the kids to an abuser, and whose dad left a woman because another guy had fathered their child; and, finally, a kid who “burned down a lady’s house when he was 13” and says, “I just love beating up somebody and making they nose bleed…and beating them to the ground.”
So goes the latest iteration of the “undeserving poor,” an age-old concept brilliantly excavated by the late historian Michael Katz in his book of the same title. Like the long lineage it stems from, Brooks’ rendition is as “representative” of people with low-incomes as corrupt corporate titans are of small entrepreneurs. Anecdotally, in my years working for Boys and Girls Clubs, reporting as a poverty correspondent for The Nation, and now editing TalkPoverty.org which regularly features posts from people living in poverty—Brooks’ “representative figures” remind me of exactly zero people I have met during this time. I’m not saying that these individuals don’t exist, but they have little to do with the policies or the morality we need to dramatically reduce poverty in America.
Brooks preaches that we should react to these stories with “intense sympathy,” but then ask people who are struggling questions like: “Are you living for short-term pleasure or long-term good? Are you living for yourself or for your children? Do you have the freedom of self-control or are you in bondage to your desires?”