I used to think it was worth posing the question: “How can one properly discern the difference between the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’ poor?” I thought perhaps if we could make that distinction clear, we’d find that most of the poor were in fact ‘deserving’ of our attention, if not economically or politically, at least theologically. But what I’ve begun to realize is that, for those I’d be trying to convince, the distinction is irrelevant because the notion of the ‘deserving poor’ is not a difficult problem but is instead a contradiction in terms. It is not a problem, it a non-issue. The recent onslaught of by-no-means-subtle essays and outbursts has made this undeniably clear. There can be no ‘deserving poor.’
I am reminded of an observation made by psychologist Abraham Maslow about the human tendency to assume that “what is” is “what must be,” in which he cited the examples of Freud and Aristotle who assumed that women and slaves (respectively), if they were subject to other groups, were justifiably subjected, and to treat them any other way than as subjects was to offend the laws of justice itself. After all, if slaves and women are by nature inferior, they ought to be ruled for their own good. Maslow called this point of view “ought blindness”—an inability to conceive of the idea that a fact might be something other than what it is. It is a thinly veiled determinism (or not so thinly veiled, in Freud’s case).
In the case of the poor, we are dealing with a specifically economic kind of determinism because the laws are no longer those of nature but rather the iron laws of the market: the poor are poor because of who they are as economic actors, and it is simply ridiculous to talk as if they ought not be poor. They are what they are, and to attempt to change their social status without, in some way, changing who they are (which is to say, beings of an inferior economic nature), is to offend justice—market justice, that is.
The interesting point, however, is not with Maslow’s diagnosis but with his prescription: facts are not, as his fellow-scientists were, and the economic determinists are, saying, just bits of data with no telos. Maslow believed that facts had a vector–were capable of pointing the interpreter in a particular direction. The tendency he was trying to fight was the desire of his contemporaries to avoid the responsibility of interpretation by preferring instead an ideology which simplifies and determines the interpretation for them. It was a battle worth fighting and which is still a long way from being won.