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Race and the Undeserving Poor

Public policy in the United States has been characterized by race since its genesis, contrary to the common narrative of class as the primary factor. Instead of class being the primary influence on social policy, it is actually a thinly veiled cover for discussions about race because the lowest class has always had a high percentage of Black individuals while the middle and upper class have been largely white.

Despite the common claim that Black people have benefitted more than whites from social policy, the exact opposite is true. Policy that benefits the poor, including the working-class poor, benefits white working-class people far more than the poorer BIPOC. This has historically led to welfare policy being split between what the public and state understand as the deserving and undeserving poor, with Black people being almost exclusively considered undeserving and middle-class whites being considered deserving.

The welfare policy response to the COVID-19 pandemic is the perfect example of this idea. BIPOC have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic and disproportionately left out of legislation meant to stimulate the economy and support those who lost their jobs. Even the, unfortunately ongoing, conversations about a second stimulus/aid bill have been reminiscent of the conversations in the 1800’s about the Freedman’s Bureau. Linda Faye Williams writes about this in the following excerpt from page 48 of her book The Constraints of Race (which I recommend everyone read):

“First, it [the Freedmen’s Bureau] demonstrated severe limitations in the willingness of the federal government to pursue a course of social rights for blacks or any other poor population. Given the strength of the American ethos, the poor in general were viewed as responsible for their own plight and undeserving of assistance from government. The interaction of the ethos with the ideology of whiteness made blacks, in the eyes of most white people, ‘the truly undeserving.’ Hoary stereotypes of blacks as lazy, shiftless, dependent, and naturally inferior had rendered them unworthy of assistance even in the minds of the feminist-led Mother’s Aid movement.” (Williams, 2003)

Understanding the present in terms of the past is one of the best ways to ensure a full understanding of it and how our actions fit into a larger picture. Thus the excerpt above provides the context for the following collection of quotes. 

President Donald Trump in a Fox Business interview: 
“We had something where ... it gave you a disincentive to 
work last time. We want to create a very great incentive to 
Stephen Stanley, chief economist of Amherst Pierpont Securities: 
“This is not rocket science, folks. When you pay people more 
to sit at home than to go back to work, they sit at home. 
When you don’t, if they are offered a job, they go back to 
Larry Kudlow, the White House economic advisor: 
"We want folks to go back to work, and we don't want to 
create disincentives to work, so we're creating a technical 
formula that would give you 70% of the wage." 
Senator Lindsey Graham:
"If a person is making $23 an hour on unemployment, it's
going to be hard to get you go back to work for a $17 hour
Larry Kudlow, Economic Council Director: 
“The $600 . . . is in effect a disincentive. We’re paying people 
not to work. It's better than their salaries. That might have 
worked for the first couple of months (but) it will end in late 

This is a clear example of the dangers of policies that don’t start on the ground and work their ways up. Bottom-up policy tends to be more focused and effective in assisting those who need it because it doesn’t need to appease a larger population as federal policy would.

William’s specifies this on page 33, where she says, “As the size and intensity of the relief crisis grew, a number of new private aid societies in the North sprang up with the express objective of demanding that the federal government create a more formal support system for the former slaves and refugees. In short, it was forces in civil society, not government, that first sought to push the creation of programs of relief.”  Reading this quote and the whole book about the deserving and undeserving poor felt as if echoes of current events and issues had been present in its writing. 

 Just as they have in the current pandemic, and as they have since the founding of this country, federal policies target BIPOC as the ‘disposable’ population in natural disasters and direct the most aid to wealthy whites. The language might have changed, and huge progressions may have been made, but the perspective of the government that BIPOC are ‘disposable’ for the good of the white citizens of the country has remained the same.



Williams, Linda Faye. The Constraint of Race: Legacies of White Skin Privilege in America. Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003. 

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