“With the death in October 1865 of Lord Palmerston, the great Whig Prime Minister and inveterate opponent of parliamentary reform, the enfranchisement of a substantial number of laboring men seemed inevitable. Debates over the nature of franchise reform in 1866 and 1867 revolved around establishing the boundaries between one group of men deemed worthy of inclusion in the political nation— the respectable, independent working man living in a stable residence as head of household— and another deemed unworthy of the privileges of citizenship— the wayward ‘rough’ and dependent pauper who flitted from one cheap lodging to another. By 1867, the great Liberal reformer John Bright had declared the existence of a class he called ‘the residuum,’ whose exclusion from the rest of the male working class was essential for the nation’s well being.”
I was reminded of a study by Robert A. Moffitt I have cited here twice. Moffitt discovered a distinct trend of welfare benefits going to those who are regarded as “deserving” of support. The government and voters prefer that aid go to those who work, who are married and who have kids. Instead of saying every American kid should be able to afford an education, the President now says “every middle class kid” should be able to afford an education. A provision in the House GOP version of this year’s agricultural bill, meanwhile, would restrict a summer program intended to feed poor children to the rural and not the urban poor. There even appears to be growing negative sentiment towards charity with the recipients of aid being described as freeloaders. I have written about this before as well.
In Victorian times, class anxieties were often linked to a sense that the undeserving poor were sexually immoral. The poor, after all, are far more likely to chose to work as prostitutes than the rich. There is a dimension of sexual morality in our condemnation of the undeserving poor as well. The breakdown of the traditional family among the lower classes is to blame. Single mothers are penalized by our social programs in the name of encouraging marriage. Single mothers are part of the residuum.
In Victorian England, the quest to separate the moral and deserving laborers from the immoral and undeserving poor was sparked by fears about the breakdown of the social order as the aristocracy began to decline and the middle class started to grow. Without the old hierarchies, how could they avoid descending into utter chaos?
I began to wonder if our increasing focus on separating the deserving from the undeserving might be a function of our own changing class system. After all, Britain has returned to Victorian levels of inequality and the U.S. has higher inequality than England (and Bangladesh, and Ethiopia).
As we see middle class incomes stagnate, and the lines between the middle class and poor start to blur, do we seek to make moral distinctions between groups of the poor as a way to reassure ourselves that we will never be on the bottom rung ourselves?