“Don’t say that, Governor. Don’t look at it that way. What am I, Governors both? I ask you, what am I? I’m one of the undeserving poor: that’s what I am. Think of what that means to a man. It means that he’s up agen middle class morality all the time. If there’s anything going, and I put in for a bit of it, it’s always the same story: ‘You’re undeserving; so you can’t have it.’ But my needs is as great as the most deserving widow’s that ever got money out of six different charities in one week for the death of the same husband. I don’t need less than a deserving man: I need more. I don’t eat less hearty than him; and I drink a lot more. I want a bit of amusement, cause I’m a thinking man. I want cheerfulness and a song and a band when I feel low. Well, they charge me just the same for everything as they charge the deserving. What is middle class morality? Just an excuse for never giving me anything. Therefore, I ask you, as two gentlemen, not to play that game on me. I’m playing straight with you. I ain’t pretending to be deserving. I’m undeserving; and I mean to go on being undeserving. I like it; and that’s the truth. Will you take advantage of a man’s nature to do him out of the price of his own daughter what he’s brought up and fed and clothed by the sweat of his brow until she’s growed big enough to be interesting to you two gentlemen? Is five pounds unreasonable? I put it to you; and I leave it to you.”
– George Bernard Shaw, “Pygmalion”
What makes one person “Deserving” and another “Undeserving?” Certainly we would all agree those who hurt others deserve punishment in some form or other. Can we also all agree that, simply by virtue of having beaten incredible odds just to be born, we are all deserving of food? Shelter? Clothing? Medical Care? No, probably not.
The Puritan Work Ethic has trained us all to believe that a person deserves only what he or she can earn by trading their time, and some form of effort, for rewards. To the extent we can contribute, we deserve something. This made sense for America’s earliest settlers. If Per Hansa and Beret didn’t work hard, frequently, and faithfully, their family would certainly perish. And their hard work was rewarded with the necessities of life. They were fed, clothed, sheltered, and to the extent possible in that time, granted the best medical care available. (If you haven’t read “Giants in the Earth,” I recommend it. It’s the story of Norwegian immigrants who settled in the Dakota territories in the 1870s.)
But even they depended, to some extent, on other families in the area to help them from time to time. “Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god.” That’s not new information. That’s Aristotle. We need each other from birth. Few and far between are the infants who can survive entirely alone.
So, it seems to me, that at some point, we must grant a person the right to rely on others. We do this, without much debate, at the beginning of life. The overwhelming majority of humans are born into some form of society. It may be a good society or a bad one. The infant has no control over the society into which he or she is born.
We have a choice, as adults, about the society in which we live. We can either accept it, reject it, or something in between. We may criticize it, or we may seek another one in which to live. We may also seek to improve it.
Some place between birth and adulthood we give up the right to rely on others. Is this morally right? I don’t know, but, at least in The United States in 2019, it seems to be true.
Now, we must not only contribute to society in some way, but we must find a way that society values highly enough to pay us a living wage. None of us, anymore, is Per Hansa, chopping down the trees in the area to build the house in which his family will live. We rely on each other for roads, for the production of food, for schools, for military and police protection, for fire departments, and a host of other things. We are a social animal. We cannot live entirely alone. Our work is not for our benefit alone. It is to benefit the society in which we live.
If someone is unsuccessful in that effort, we seem to have decided, that person is undeserving. And that’s where I have my problem . Why is a person undeserving?
We seem to have declared that one must live a life within certain boundaries and norms. We now have the resources to treat every living person as though he or she were a newborn. We can provide everyone with all they need to survive.
Robert Frost is a great poet. He made a living writing poetry. That poetry certainly improved my life. J.K. Rowling is a great writer. She made a fortune writing books that certainly improved my life. I have great respect for both Frost and Rowling.
I feel sure, though, they would both tell you that there are other poets or novelists of whom you have never heard, of whom you never will hear, who are their superiors. And those poets and novelists will work at whatever jobs they can find to support themselves. They weren’t fortunate enough to get published. They weren’t fortunate enough to become popular successes. But they contribute in the same way Rowling and Frost do. Do they truly deserve less? Why?
We’ve moved from philosophy to economic theory. Now we will hear from critics about the virtues of capitalism. It certainly works for some. There are those who amass great wealth under that system. There are others who simply can’t do as well. And so long as we subscribe to the idea that they don’t deserve any more than their skills and efforts allow them to earn, it’s not a problem that many people are poor, underemployed, and not able to pursue what matters most to them because they are required to try to find the funds to survive.
But, what would life be if people didn’t have to do that? Why do we insist that they earn little pieces of green paper to be deserving of a decent life?
I was fortunate to have what I think was an excellent childhood. I had parents who loved me, supported me, taught me, understood me as much as any parents can understand their progeny, and protected me. They allowed me to figure out who I wanted to be. And not surprisingly, I wanted to be Batman. That didn’t work out. I wanted to be Atticus Finch, Santiago, Holden Caulfield, and Aaron Sorkin. None of those worked out, either, though I like to think there are pieces of those men inside of me. Sadly, there’s not a trace of Batman to be found in me. There might be a little Captain Kirk, though. I also wanted to be a teacher. They helped me to work that out. I managed, after a fashion, to make a living.
But, does that mean I deserve more than someone who had no parents, or whose parents were child abusers, or criminals, or simply didn’t love them? How is that the fault of the child? Why does she deserve less than I do?
Certainly, we don’t all deserve jet planes and swimming pools, but is it really unreasonable to ask for the necessities of life for all people when it’s so easily given? If we could be done with, “I got mine; you get yours” I feel like we could begin to make the sort of society of which we can be proud. We provide for our babies because we love them. Is it really unreasonable to ask that we love everyone at least enough to let them live some sort of life?
“You may say that I’m a dreamer— John Lennon
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one.”