A holiday meditation on the “undeserving poor”


by David Safier

Unfortunately, too many people today have returned to the late 19th/early 20th century concept of deserving and the undeserving poor. Let's help those poor people who deserve to be helped, they say, people who are poor through no fault of their own and are trying to better themselves. But we shouldn't be giving money or other forms of aid to the lazy, the shiftless and the drug addled.

This is the time of year when Christians celebrate the birth of an infant they believe to be the most deserving of praise and adoration in the history of humankind. He wasn't a child of wealth. He was born into ordinary circumstances, maybe even circrumstances of extraordinary need. At this time of the year especially, people should ask themselves, is there such a thing as an undeserving child?

Every child is deserving by definition, whether they are born to parents who are rich or poor, saints or sinners. Children don't choose to live in poverty or luxury. Every child is worthy of the best break in life we can offer them.

In my Jewish tradition, children are basically blameless — sinless — until they turn 13. The Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitvah are rites of passage from childhood to adulthood, the beginning of the time you alone are responsible for your good and bad deeds. Before that, your wrongdoing doesn't go on your permanent record.

If all children are deserving, and I believe they are, then they deserve all the help a society can reasonably offer to assure them a fair shot at safety, good nutrition, good health, good education and the possibility of a successful future. If some children have the bad luck to be born to parents who are "undeserving" in the eyes of those who choose to make the distinction, the children should not be punished. If giving aid to those deserving young people means lavishing some of it on their "undeserving" parents, so be it. If we refuse to help the children, we're guilty of sacrificing their welfare for the sins of their parents.

During this time of year more than any other, people should carry genuine charity in their hearts. The origin of the word charity has to do with love and is sometimes translated as Christian love of humankind. Those who are unable to feel genuine charity for adults they label "undeserving" should find a way to open their hearts to children, no matter what their parentage. And if they're not capable of opening their hearts, we should pity them at the same time we strive to do right by all our children.


  1. Are there no prisons or workhouses? I pay my taxes to support those things. Or the poor could die and decrease the surplus population, but only after they are born.

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