The Undeserving Poor and the Losers’ Mortgages

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March 7, 2009 by D Stack

At my church, St. Matthias Parish in Marlborough, MA, we have a series of interactive seminars. Tonight was our third seminar, this one about Catholic Social Teaching, presented by Fr. John J. O’Brien.  These seminars are a lot of fun – we hold them in an informal setting, with wine, beer, and food served. And we have child care so that those of us with little ones get to enjoy ourselves. (My apologies if I misquote or misinterpret what he said tonight – I’m working from memory and notes, though the conclusions are my own in any case.)

I’m on the committee that is responsible for arranging these seminars and we were hoping to use this as an introduction to Catholic Social Teaching, with topics like economic justice, war, politics, etc. Tonight’s session dealt largely dealt with economic issues – not too surprising considering the meltdown we’re going through right now.

One thing I especially found interesting was discussion of the US Catholic Bishops’ 1986 letter Economic Justice for All, a discussion of Catholic teaching and the US Economy. Sections 13 through 18 were the focus of our discussion. While I may return to all of them in some detail, I would summarize them as being concerned with the dignity of the human person and that dignity must be protected and realized in the community. A theme that appeared repeatedly, both in his initial talk and in follow-up discussion, was that of avoiding stigmatizing the poor and exaggerating both the benefits and amount of fraud in welfare. A concept that was summed up as “the undeserving poor”.

The concept of the “Undeserving Poor” seemed especially relevant. For example, there is the recent Rick Santelli declaration against subsidizing the losers’ mortgages:

How about this, new President and new administration, why don’t you put up a Web site to have people vote on the Internet … to see if we really want to subsidize the losers’ mortgages.

This is an example, at least in my own opinion, of singling out the “underserving poor”. It lacks compassion and strips away human dignity. The people referenced aren’t individuals, some of whom may have made bad decisions, some of whom may have hit hard times. They are just a bunch of “losers”. Personally I feel Jon Stewart had the best reply:

You hear this sort of thing (Santelli, not Stewart) all the time. Some people are just “dumb” or “lazy” and therefore don’t deserve help. For example Rush Limbaugh at the recent CPAC stated:

So here we have two systems. We have socialism, collectivism, Stalin, whatever you want to call it, versus capitalism. Admittedly over on the right side capitalism there will be unequal outcomes because we’re all different. And some of us care more and have more passion and we know what we want to do and others are still struggling for it. Some people are just going to work harder than others. Okay. You get what you work for. Those who have a genuine inability for whatever reason are taken care of. We’re compassionate people. On the left side when you get into this collectivism socialism stuff, these people on the left, the Democrats and liberals today claim that they are pained by the inequities and the inequalities in our society. And they believe that these inequities and inequalities descend from the selfishness and the greed of the achievers. And so they tell the people who are on different income quintiles, whatever lists, they say it’s not that you’re not working hard enough, you could have what they have, perhaps, if you applied it. They’re stealing it from you.

Here’s what I take out of it more than anything else: “Some people are just going to work harder than others. Okay. You get what you work for.” So those who are poor, they are just not working hard enough.

I’m sure you could find cases where this is indeed true. But that’s just not a global truth. Is the person working in a mine really just not working hard enough? Is the recent immigrant working multiple low-paying jobs not working as hard as a CEO?  Some of us are born on third base. Others are born with two strikes against us.

I’m not arguing for a system whereby everyone is guaranteed of the exact same life as everyone else. But a system which does guarantee certain rights – a “common good” as it was referred to at our seminar – seems reasonable. And it does not seem at all proper to me to try to universally strip people of their dignity for the sin of being poor. Even if some are poor solely through their own “fault”, they are still deserving of a base human dignity.


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