There are many bad policies in our country built on the idea of the deserving poor. Jeffrey Will’s (1993) highly cited article tries to make sense of the ambiguity between America’s endorsement of social equality and contempt for those who have made irresponsible life choices. Political support for our social safety net is often complicated by the idea that, “… families who are experiencing troubles and yet are actively working to alleviate such difficulties will be seen as in need of more support than those who are not.” (317) The idea then follows that the “undeserving poor” should not be given (as much) public assistance. It’s a legitimate question of whether or not to use public dollars to support someone who will potentially waste it.
Making the distinction between the deserving and undeserving, however, is fraught with inconsistencies and moralizations. Many non-profits go to great lengths to show potential donors that their organization serves the truly most deserving of clients. Politicians often exploit our collective squeamishness for spending public money on our most troubled neighbors. We have in turn developed many qualifications and red tape in a vain attempt to target those who are the best public investment. Such skepticism can be a good thing, but has sometimes led to policies that are even more wasteful.
David Weigel of Slate and Kerry Drake of WyoFile recently wrote about how Utah’s HousingWorks program has been able to reduce homelessness by 74%. Instead of expecting homeless citizens to navigate the social service system’s red tape to get public assistance, Utah decided to offer apartments to the homeless first (no strings attached) and then assign caseworkers to help the individuals become self-sufficient. The program has been so successful, Utah is the first state in the Union to meet its homeless reduction goals.
Why should Utah provide such a service to the homeless? It saves money. A housing first program in Denver reduced Emergency Room costs by 34% and Utah saves $5000 a year by housing the homeless instead of waiting for them to get sick or thrown in jail. Do these homeless citizens deserve our help? I don’t know and don’t care.
The social safety net does not just exist for moral reasons, but helps ensure a productive workforce, reduces crime, stimulates economic growth and saves on other public costs. If we are serious about tackling social problems, we must disenthrall ourselves of this myth that we should only help those deserving of our help. America needs more programs like HousingWorks that are focused on improving our communities instead of making judgments.
Matt Impink is a former US History Teacher and Education Policy Advocate. He is currently a Graduate Student at IU’s School for Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA) in Indianapolis and curates the Civic Blog. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and tweets @mrimpink.