The Political Rhetor and the Future. 6.2.a. The Poor.

If you haven’t read 6.1, I recommend you do so before reading 6.2..

6.2. has turned into quite a lengthy project. So, I’ve broken it down into 6.2.a. The Poor, 6.2.b. Children, and 6.2.c. Future Generations. Subsequent posts in this series are 6.3. Attainability of Ends, 6.4. Warnings, 6.4. Solidarity, and 6.5. Character (Ethos).

Recall that a perlocutionary speech act is something uttered (or written) to bring about a desired effect in the listener (reader). So by perlocutionary value is meant the likelihood of the utterance to bring about the desired effect. In this series I am interested not so much in what political rhetors are saying, but what each are doing by what they’re saying; i.e. pay attention to the perlocutionary value of what they’re saying. Keeping with my rowing analogy, I’m curious about what is going on in the rowers’ heads to move the boat one way or another. Sometimes slowly. Sometimes with a thrust. Sometimes to some other outcome such as adrift at sea (inertia). Mutiny (coup or civil war). Shipwreck (economic collapse) …..

In his book Rhetoric, Aristotle was interested in systemizing how rhetoric and mental states connect. I take my project to build on Aristotle’s by fleshing it out with some conceptual analyses. Conceptual analyses — the critical analyses of the core concepts by which we navigate the world — is the business of analytic philosophy rather than rhetoric. But I am not being quite that rigorous here. I’m providing more of an exposition and some cursory analyses that covers a lot of theoretical ground. I’ll go into greater depth and rigour on a number of concepts in future posts. My hope is that what I’ve done here is useful for you as you navigate the conceptual waters of political rhetoric. At least, I hope I leave you plenty to think about.

For what it’s worth, I have a few caveats about my project. I’m not here weighing in on the good, bad, right, or wrong of the kinds of views people espouse. I’m not weighing in on the goodness or badness, rightness or wrongness of the people who espouse them, including political rhetors. The take-away here is not that people are ignorant, gullible sheeples who can’t think for themselves or that politicians are corrupt and trying to deceive us. Both might be true in some cases, and character is certainly a part of political rhetoric. Only my last entry in this series is about the political rhetorician and character. Rather I invite your curiosity about something very much a part of our shared lives.

Front Matter

Rhetoric may be defined as the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion (6)… Rhetoric we look upon as the power of observing the means of persuasion on almost any subject given to us … (Rhetoric, 7).

Rhetoric is the counterpart of Dialectic [a method of investigating the truth of opinions by means of reasoned argumentation]. Both alike are concerned with such things to come, more or less, within the general ken of all men and being to no definite science. Accordingly, all men make use, more or less, of both; for to a certain extent all men attempt to discuss statements and to maintain them, to defend themselves and attack others. Ordinary people do this either at random or through practice and from acquired habit. (Rhetoric, 3)

A statement is persuasive and credible either because it is directly self-evident or because it appears to be proved from other statements that are so. In either case it is persuasive because there is someone that it persuades. (Rhetoric, 9)

If it be objected that one who uses such power of speech unjustly might do great harm, that is a charge that which may be made in common against all good things except virtue, and above all against the things that are most useful, as strength, health, wealth, generalship …[science and technology, e.g. mustard gas versus gas masks, defibrillator versus the electric chair, eugenics versus CRISPR (gene editing technology). Everything in the square brackets is mine. Pam]. A man can confer the greatest of benefits by a right use of these, and inflict the greatest of injuries by using them wrongly. (Rhetoric,6)

The political orator is concerned with the future: it is about things to be done hereafter that he advises, for or against. (Rhetoric, 13)

Aristotle. Rhetoric. Trans. W. Rhys Roberts. Dover Publications, 2004.


But for my final address to this chamber, I don’t want to just talk about next year. I want to focus on the next five years, the next 10 years, and beyond. I want to focus on our future.

Barack Obama, State of the Union Address, January 13, 2016.

Political rhetors at the highest echelons of government explicitly talk about the future of their country, nation, or confederacy (e.g. European Union).

Aristotle identifies five “main matters on which all men deliberate and on which political speakers make speeches”. They are, 1) Ways and Means, i.e. “the number and extent of the country’s sources of revenue”;

2) War and Peace, i.e. “the extent of the military strength of his country, both actual and potential”;

3) National Defence, i.e. “the methods of defence in actual use”;

4) Imports and Exports, i.e. “With regard to Food Supply : he must know what outlay will meet the needs of his country; what kinds of food are produced at home and what imported; and what articles must be imported or exported. This last he must know in order that agreements and commercial treaties may be made with the countries concerned”; and finally,

5) Legislation, i.e. “[the political rhetor] must before all things understand the subject of legislation; for it is on a [polity’s] laws that its whole welfare depends. He must, therefore, know how many different forms of constitution there are; under what conditions each of these will prosper and by what internal developments or external attacks each of them tends to be destroyed” (pp 15-17, Rhetoric).

These matters comprise the substance of contemporary political speeches. And absent some Utopian future, they always will. However, after a couple thousand years Aristotle’s five main matters can stand to be updated. So let’s add eight more to make a baker’s dozen, 6) Health care; 7) Education; 8) Employment; 9) Environment; 10) Social Justice; 11) Civil liberties; 12) Immigration; and, 13) Science and Technology.

I grant that some if not all of these matters can be subsumed under Aristotle’s original five. Civil liberties falls under Legislation. Employment falls under Ways and Means. I’ve added the other matters because government has become more specialized. And discourse on each matter has grown exponentially.

Members of the public would have no interest in these matters without some inkling of how and why they should matter to them. So political rhetors particularize by indexing these matters to the interests of circumscribed groups. And sometimes to the interests of the generic individual. In the first case we commonly encounter pitches about the poor, the middle-class, small business owners, tax payers, voters, and the .001%. In the latter we find a working couple who can’t afford to put food on the table or send their kids to college, the middle-aged man who doesn’t know if he’ll have enough retirement fund, or the injured worker overwhelmed with uncovered medical bills.

And they’re out there, those voices. They don’t get a lot of attention; they don’t seek a lot of fanfare; but they’re busy doing the work this country needs doing. I see them everywhere I travel in this incredible country of ours. I see you, the American people. And in your daily acts of citizenship, I see our future unfolding. I see it in the worker on the assembly line who clocked extra shifts to keep his company open, and the boss who pays him higher wages instead of laying him off. 

Barak Obama, State of the Union Address, January 13, 2016.

Some political rhetors will put a name and face to an individual, especially when addressing a live audience.

One of those students is Janiyah Davis, a fourth grader from Philadelphia.  Janiyah.  (Applause.) 

Janiyah’s mom, Stephanie, is a single parent.  She would do anything to give her daughter a better future.  But last year, that future was put further out of reach when Pennsylvania’s governor vetoed legislation to expand school choice to 50,000 children. Janiyah and Stephanie are in the Gallery.  Stephanie, thank you so much for being here with your beautiful daughter. Thank you very much.  (Applause.) But, Janiyah, I have some good news for you, because I am pleased to inform you that your long wait is over. 

I can proudly announce tonight that an Opportunity Scholarship has become available, it’s going to you, and you will soon be heading to the school of your choice.  (Applause.)

Donald J. Trump, State of the Union Address, February 4, 2020.

The groups talked about by the political rhetor in her speech are not always the group she’s addressing. It’s in the interests of some groups to be apprised of the interests of some other or others. Why? Because in some cases the interests of different groups might be tied together. For example, those who can afford private health insurance might be persuaded that it’s in their economic interests to ensure uninsured or underinsured workers are given the means to recover, both medically and financially, from their injuries. A healthy worker is a contributor to the economy, an injured worker a drain on it.

In other cases the social and political identity of one group might be tied to another. We’re people who take from the rich and give to the poor. We’re people who create jobs.

There are at least three classes of people frequently the subject of political rhetoric but who are remarkable in that they denote people who have little or no political say. Or, as my husband puts it, have no skin in the game such as property ownership. But in either case, they can certainly be played. And when played, are very powerful pieces. These three classes are: 1) the poor, 2) children, and 3) future generations.

By the end of 6.2., you should see the thread that runs through these three classes. Politics is fundamentally about population and resources, about the numbers and distribution of each. Inasmuch as the political rhetor is concerned with the future, she is concerned with ‘who’, people, and ‘what’, resources, she has on hand, and how to arrange them. Persuasive speech is one way to move people into a desired arrangement.

The crime rate, the welfare and food stamp rolls, the poverty rate and the teen pregnancy rate are all down. And as they go down, prospects for America’s future go up.

William Jefferson Clinton, State of the Union Address, U.S. Capitol, January 23, 1996.

(1) The Poor.

There are perhaps few subjects on which human ingenuity has been more exerted than the endeavour to meliorate the condition of the poor; and there is certainly no subject in which it has so completely failed. (1826)

Thomas Malthus, An Essay on The Principle of Population, Volume 2, Book IV, Chapter XIII, Of the Necessity of General Principles on this Subject.

Poor people tend not to be politically active. Some are disenfranchised because they lack a fixed address, which is required in some jurisdictions to vote. Some are too exhausted by the burdens of survival. Others feel detached from politics, that their interests don’t matter. But though ‘the poor’ have little political say, they loom large in political rhetoric. Why? Because the poor tend to be regarded as wards of the state. And wards of the state, though not moral agents, are moral patients.

As Thomas Hobbes puts it, wards of the state are typically children, fools, and madmen that have no use of reason (Leviathan, Pt I, Ch. XVI, 10). Hobbes has in mind those unable to enter into contracts due to some temporary or permanent incapacity to understand their terms. The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights defines the age of majority as “the age at which a child becomes an adult and acquires full legal capacity. It means that a person can engage in legal activities and is liable for any contractual obligations.”

But wards also include the unemployed, the elderly, the frail, refugees, single parents, prisoners, parolees, probationers, veterans, and the homeless. Often members of these groups fall under some form of governmental custodianship involving both financial support and restricted freedoms. Some countries provide unemployment insurance for those who’ve lost their jobs. Applicants must meet certain criteria to receive this assistance for a limited period during which they must prove they’re actively looking for work, must not take holidays, etc. In some jurisdictions welfare recipients attend mandatory employment-readiness programs, have limited possessions, report periodically to a caseworker, and so on. These underclasses are common subjects of political rhetoric.

For the poor shall never cease out of the land: therefore I command thee, saying Thou shalt open thy hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor and to thy needy, in thy land.

— Deuteronomy, 15:11, King James Version (KJV).

Underclasses are typically divided into those worthy of charity and those who are not. The former are those who cannot help their material poverty, such as widows and injured workers. The unworthy are thought either to be responsible for their own predicaments — and so expected to pull themselves up by their bootstraps — or those capable of work but won’t, a.k.a. welfare bums or free-riders.

When speaking of the worthy poor, political rhetors focus on ensuring the resources available to support them. But when it comes to the unworthy, they take a different tack. Some take the compassionate approach, asking their listeners to consider unseen circumstances that might make someone appear lazy, but who is not. She’s a victim of child abuse, has an undiagnosed mental illness, is trapped in generational poverty, and so on. Some will use the unworthy to buttress the need for welfare reform. And some caution their listeners not to allow free-riders to diminish their compassion for those legitimately in need.

Robert Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), a.k.a. Population Malthus and where we get the term ‘Malthusian’, is an Anglican cleric and political economist concerned with the future improvement of society. Malthus notes the tendency for a population to expand until it outstrips its food source at which point disease, famine, and war tend to put a kibosh on its growth. He believes we can use human reason to avoid these miserable ends of unchecked population growth, but only as far as reason convinces us we should exercise discipline to do so.

However powerful may be the impulses of passion, they are generally in some degree modified by reason.

Malthus, Book IV, Chapter III: Of the Only Effectual Mode of Improving the Condition of the Poor


Malthus advises moral restraints to control population growth to keep pace with the available resources. To achieve this end, he recommends celibacy until one is married and can afford to support children, and then to limit the number of children to two. However, Malthus is deeply opposed to the use of contraceptives, even though he notes the difficulty imposed by restraining the sexual impulse. Malthus is also of the view that any sex outside of marriage is harmful to the well-being of the community and that even married couples should not use birth control to prevent pregnancy.

This view is neither original nor unique to Malthus. The Catholic Church espouses the same view, at least officially. Many practicing Catholics use birth control. The Abstinence Only Until Marriage (AOUM) approach to mitigating teen pregnancy broadly used in the United States is premised on these beliefs. The efficacy of AOUM is hotly contested and it is contrasted with a rival approach called Comprehensive Sex Education (CSE). CSE, also not without its critics, holds that youth ought to be equipped with information about sex and birth control. Both approaches aim at the same ends: population control and the allocation of resources. The resources apply to the implementation of the AOUM and CSE programmes — curriculum, instructors, training, materials, etc — as much as to their expected outcomes, i.e. reducing the social and economic costs associated with child poverty.

Malthus observes that the poor are unlikely to exercise moral restraint and tend to live in miserable conditions. By his lights, the poor are breeders, multiplying by numbers with children they can’t feed and blaming others for their miserable predicaments. Observing the strain their increasing numbers place on the local parishes for support, Malthus worries that as they multiply they drag everyone else down. To improve their lot, and ours, he suggests the poor ought to receive a moral education to make perfectly clear that and how they are responsible for their own misery.

And it does not seem entirely visionary to suppose that, if the true and permanent cause of poverty were clearly explained and forcibly brought home to each man’s bosom, it would have some, and perhaps not an inconsiderable influence on his conduct; at least the experiment has never yet been fairly tried.

Malthus, Book IV, Chapter III: Of the Only Effectual Mode of Improving the Condition of the Poor.

On Malthus’ account, if the poor so-educated still insist on having kids they can’t afford to feed, then they shouldn’t receive charity but they and their issue should be left to the consequences.

This duty is intelligible to the humblest capacity. It is merely, that he is not to bring beings into the world, for whom he cannot find the mean of support. When once this subject is cleared from the obscurity of parochial laws and private benevolence, every man must feel the strongest conviction of such an obligation. If he cannot support his children, they must starve…

Malthus, Book IV, Chapter III: Of the Only Effectual Mode of Improving the Condition of the Poor.

Malthus doesn’t think every poor person should be left to starve. Charity should be provided to those who are poor by no fault of their own, such as injured workers. Hence Malthus draws a distinction between the worthy and unworthy poor.

Some may find this distinction unpalatable, but we all draw this line. Some think people in developing countries are more deserving of charity than those who live in developed countries. Others believe charity begins at home. But not when a friend in need overstays his welcome by a year, sleeping on the couch in your living room. Mooches your cigarettes. Doesn’t pay rent.

Some will think you a saint for your charity, others a patsy. Some will urge you to kick the bum out, others call you an ogre for doing so.

Oh, but that’s different, you say. Sure. There’s always a difference between one situation and another, that’s just what makes them different situations. And when we take the time to consider these differences our moral convictions usually die the death of a thousand qualifications. Political rhetors are adept at pivoting on this moral quicksand, arguing for one course of action or another as if the ground under their feet is solid.

A preoccupation with the plight of the poor and its remedies continues to be endemic to political rhetoric. This preoccupation and the all-familiar rhetorical scripts will persist as long as there are poor. There’s really not a lot of variety in what can be said on the matter, except for who’s going to do what and what it’s going to cost. But there is a lot of bickering about the laudability or reprehensibility of one strategy over another.

Bickering aside, political rhetors, from municipalities through to the UN, tend to voice a common sentiment. The eradication of poverty leads to a better future. Yet when pushed this sentiment also dies the death of a thousand qualifications. Better for whom? And what is meant by better?

Will the eradication of poverty drive consumerism by increasing personal wealth and thus contribute to environmental ruin? Will the eradication of poverty contribute to a healthy, educated populace committed to environmental protectionism? Cf Malthus, is it true that “If the true and permanent cause of [environmental ruin] were clearly explained and forcibly brought home to each man’s bosom, it would have some, and perhaps not an inconsiderable influence on his conduct”?

What some call education, others call brainwashing. Or intimidation. Or bullshit. Some will cast aside worry about the environment, focussing instead on the immediate alleviation of suffering among the poor. On procuring food, shelter, and health care. Others think the two worries, poverty and the environment, can’t be taken apart. To which still others reply that today’s hunger pains can’t wait for long term fixes. Famine kills. And others answer that while some deaths are inevitable, they give us reason to spare future generations the pain of starvation. These people might be surprised, and some appalled, by how closely their views align with Malthus’s.

The consideration that children may suffer for the faults of their parents has a strong hold even upon vice; and many who are in such a state of mind, as to disregard the consequence of their habitual course of life, as far as relates to themselves, are yet greatly anxious that their children should not suffer from their vices and follies. In the moral government of the world, it seems evidently necessary, that the sins of the fathers should be visited upon the children; and if in our overweening vanity we imagine, that we can govern a private society better by endeavouring systematically to counteract this law, I am inclined to believe, that we shall find ourselves very greatly mistaken.

Malthus, Book IV, Chapter VIII: Plan of the gradual Abolition of the Poor Laws proposed, 1826

The take away here is that aims and interests of political rhetors are as liable to come into conflict as those of the other members of the polity, even when they are aiming at the same kinds of things. But I’m curious about why are we still discussing poverty at all. Rhetoric about poverty has existed for millennia and poverty is still with us. So why should we be the least bit optimistic that political rhetoric will mitigate any of our problems? Unless, maybe, poverty isn’t the problem we think it is. Why assume, for example, that those who live in poverty are miserable or, on the whole, more miserable than anyone else?

A greater incidence of disease among the poor might be countered by a greater sense of community. What is it that keeps about 600,000 people, many poverty stricken, living in the most dangerous area of the pyroclastic blast radius of Mt. Vesuvius in spite of financial incentives to move? For many, it’s home. And so I’m quite curious about the metrics being used to measure people’s experiences of poverty and the assumptions behind them.

Also worth considering are views such as those of Herbert J Gans who considers the persistence of poverty by its positive functional role. In “The Positive Functions of Poverty” (1972), Gans describes,

…fifteen of the more important functions which the poor carry out in American society, enough to support the functionalist thesis that poverty survives in part because it is useful to a number of groups in society. This analysis is not intended to suggest that because it is functional, poverty should persist, or that it must persist. Whether it should persist is a normative question; whether it must, an analytic and empirical one, but the answer to both depends in part on whether the dysfunction of poverty outweighs the functions. Obviously poverty has many dysfunctions, mainly for the poor themselves but also for the more affluent. For example, their social order is upset by the pathology, crime, political protests and disruption emanating from the poor, and the incomes of the affluent is affected by the taxes that must be levied to protect their social order. Whether the dysfunctions outweigh the functions is a question that clearly deserves study. (Gans, IV, 284)

Gans, Herbert J.. “The Positive Functions of Poverty.” (1972).

A study of the functions and dysfunctions of the rich and other strata in a society would also be very interesting. Among the fifteen positive functions of the poor identified by Gans are that,

The poor buy goods which others do not want and thus prolong their economic usefulness, such as day-old bread, fruit and vegetables which otherwise would have been thrown out, second hand clothes, and deteriorating automobiles and buildings. They also provide incomes for doctors, lawyers, teachers, and others who are too old, poorly trained, or incompetent to attract more affluent clients. (Gans, 280)

You might argue that the poor, in virtue of being poor, shouldn’t be saddled with professionals — doctors, lawyers, teachers — no one else wants. But consider this. If these professionals don’t have any clients, then they might also be poor. I will leave you to worry the problem.

And I will leave you to wonder whether this next positive function includes politicians and political rhetors,

Poverty creates jobs for a number of occupations and professions which serve the poor, or shield the rest of the population from them. As already noted, penology [*a branch of criminology which the studies punishment and the treatment of offenders — Pam] would be minuscule without the poor, as would the police, since the poor provide a majority of their “clients.” Other activities which flourish because of the existence of poverty are the numbers game, the sale of heroin and cheap wines and liquors, Pentecostal ministers, faith healers, prostitutes, pawn shops and the peacetime army, which recruits its enlisted men mainly from among the poor. (Gans, 279)

A recruiting serjeant always prays for a bad harvest and a want of employment, or, in other words, a redundant population.

Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population, Book IV, Chapter II: Of the Effects which would Result to Society from the Prevalence of Moral Restraint.

Christian G. Appy, in “Working-Class War,” reminds us of the disturbing truth that some 80 percent of the 2.5 million enlisted men who served in Vietnam — out of 27 million men who reached draft age during the war — came from working-class and impoverished backgrounds.

Russell F. Weigley, “Putting the Poor in Uniform”, The New York Times, April 11, 1993. [Weigley considers the ongoing “class skewing”of the US Army in light of two books on the topic of class and the Vietnam war: 1) Christian G. Appy, WORKING-CLASS WAR American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.2) Eric M. Bergerud, RED THUNDER, TROPIC LIGHTNING The World of a Combat Division in Vietnam, Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.]

Since poverty by far precedes capitalism, socialism, and other contemporary theories of wealth distribution and inequality, perhaps you have your own hypothesis of why poverty has been with us so long. Given this hypothesis, how does political rhetoric concerning the poor dovetail with your own thoughts and feelings?

There are perhaps few subjects on which human ingenuity has been more exerted than the endeavour to meliorate the condition of the poor; and there is certainly no subject in which it has so completely failed.

Thomas Malthus, An Essay on The Principle of Population, Volume 2, Book IV, Chapter XIII, Of the Necessity of General Principles on this Subject.

For the poor shall never cease out of the land: therefore I command thee, saying Thou shalt open thy hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor and to thy needy, in thy land.

— Deuteronomy, 15:11, King James Version (KJV).

The structure of society, in its greatest features, will probably always remain unchanged. We have every reason to believe it will always consist a class of proprietors and of a class of labourers; but the condition of each, and the proportion they bear to each other, may so be altered, as to alter the beauty and harmony of the whole … The partial good which seems to be attainable is worthy of all our exertions; is sufficient to direct our efforts, and animate our prospects.

Malthus, Book IV, Chapter XIV: Of Our Rational Expectations Respecting the Future Improvement of Society.

Let’s now take a look at some of themes I’ve covered in this entry by comparing some excerpts from Malthus’s An Essay on the Principle of Population with some contemporary political rhetoric on the poor.

After … the system of the poor-laws [1] had ceased with regard to the rising generation, if any man choose to marry, without a prospect of being able to support a family, he should have the most perfect liberty to do so. Though to marry, in this case, is, in my opinion, clearly an immoral act, yet it is not one which society can justly take on itself to prevent or punish; because the punishment provided for it by the laws of nature falls directly and most severely on the one who commits the act, and through him, only more remotely and feebly, on society. When nature will govern and punish for us, it is a very miserable ambition to wish to snatch the rod from her hands, and draw upon ourselves the odium of executioner.

Malthus, Book IV, Chapter VIII, Plan of the Gradual Abolition of the Poor-Laws Proposed.

[1]First enacted by Elizabeth I, poor-laws are an old English system of poverty relief legislation. Up until the early 1800s, the poor-laws were parish-based and suited to a smaller population. Around the mid-1700s, the growing population put increasing strain on the parish system and spurred calls for reform. Malthus opposes the poor-laws because he believes they are self-defeating; e.g. they encourage indolence, and encourage the poor to large families consequently increasing the numbers of the poor and their miserable living conditions. The Poor Law system existed in one form or another until after WW II.

I also know Speaker Ryan has talked about his interest in tackling poverty. America is about giving everybody willing to work a chance, a hand up. And I’d welcome a serious discussion about strategies we can all support, like expanding tax cuts for low-income workers who don’t have children. (Applause.) 

Barack Obama, State of the Union Address, January 13, 2016.

In the great course of human events, the best founded expectations will sometimes be disappointed; and industry, prudence, and virtue not only fail their just reward, but be involved in unmerited calamities. Those who are thus suffering in spite of the best-directed endeavours to avoid it, and from causes they could not be expected to forsee, are the genuine objects of charity…Such objects ought to be relieved, according to our means, liberally and adequately, even though the worthless were in much more severe distress.

When indeed this first claim on our benevolence was satisfied, we might then turn our attention to the idle and improvident; but the interests of human happiness most clearly require, that the relief which we afford them should not be abundant. We may perhaps take upon ourselves, with great caution, to mitigate the punishments which they are suffering from the laws of nature, but on no account to remove them entirely. They are deservedly at the bottom scale of society; and if we raise them from this situation, we not only palpably defeat the end of benevolence, but commit a most glaring injustice to those who are above them. They should on no account be enabled to command so much of the necessities of life as can be obtained by the wages of common labour.

It is evident that these reasonings do not apply to those cases of urgent distress arising from disastrous accidents, unconnected with habits indolence [sic] and improvidence. If a man breaks a leg or an arm, we are not to stop to inquire his moral character before we lend him our assistance; but in this cases [sic] we are perfectly consistent, and the touchstone of utility completely justifies our conduct. By affording the most indiscriminate assistance in this way, we are in little danger of encouraging people to break their arms and legs. According to the touchstone of utility, the high approbation which Christ gave to the conduct of the good Samaritan, who followed the immediate impulse of his benevolence in relieving a stranger in urgent distress of an accident, does not, in the smallest degree, contradict the expression of St. Paul, “If a man will not work, neither shall he eat”

Malthus, Book IV, Chapter 10, On the Direction of Our Charity Thomas Robert Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population, or a View of its Past and Present Effects on Human Happiness; with an Inquiry into our Prospects respecting the Future Removal or Mitigation of the Evils which it Occasions (London: John Murray 1826). 6th ed. 2020-04-05. <;

We’ve created a welfare monster that is a shocking indictment of our sense of priorities. Our national welfare system consists of some 59 major programs and over 6,000 pages of federal laws and regulations on which more than $132 billion was spent in 1985.

I will propose a new national welfare strategy — a program of welfare reform through state-sponsored, community-based demonstration projects. This is the time to reform this outmoded social dinosaur and finally break the poverty trap. Now, we will never abandon those who, through no fault of their own, must have our help. But let us work to see how many can be freed from the dependency of welfare and made self-supporting, which the great majority of welfare recipients want more than anything else.

Ronald Wilson Reagan, State of the Union Address,January 27,1987.

We have lavished immense sums on the poor, which we have every reason to think have constantly tended to aggravate their misery. But in their education and in the circulation of those important political truths that most nearly concern them, which are perhaps the only means in our power of really raising their condition, and of making them happier men and more peaceable subjects, they have been miserably deficient.

Malthus, Book IV, Chapter 9: Of the Modes of Correcting the Prevailing Opinions on Population, 1826.

Our third challenge is to help every American who is willing to work for it, achieve economic security in this new age.[sic] People who work hard still need support to get ahead in the new economy. They need education and training for a lifetime. They need more support for families raising children. They need retirement security. They need access to health care. More and more Americans are finding that the education of their childhood simply doesn’t last a lifetime.

William Jefferson Clinton, State of the Union Address, U.S. Capitol, January 23, 1996.

Two closing notes. First, how people are regarded, worthy or unworthy, makes no difference to their material conditions. Poor is poor. An entirely other analysis concerns the criteria and methods used to determine whether and how someone is poor. And there is great variability in where the poverty line is drawn. (See, How to Lie With Statistics by Darrell Huff.) Political rhetors might cherry pick the poverty line to fit their arguments, drawing it higher or lower, or they might simply not know how to interpret the data. However, the optics aren’t good for people who fact-check the rhetor’s claims. So most don’t.

Second, there is no fact of the matter about who is the ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ poor. The poor single mom on welfare is accompanied by children. Mom might be maligned as causing a drain on the public purse, but her children have special moral entitlements. Veterans are lauded for serving their country, and disparaged for this service. Returning Vietnam vets were called “baby killers.” Neither reception resolves PTSD. A veteran’s chest might be covered with medals, but not covered for medical. A reformed prisoner represents the goodness in each of us, or what each of us can expect from a good penal system. Neither representation looks good on a resume, and some prospective employers treat released prisoners with caution. Political rhetors use the ambiguity in these cases to portray the same people in different lights for different purposes for different audiences.

I say to those who are on welfare, and especially to those who have been trapped on welfare for a long time: For too long our welfare system has undermined the values of family and work, instead of supporting them. The Congress and I are near agreement on sweeping welfare reform. We agree on time limits, tough work requirements, and the toughest possible child support enforcement. But I believe we must also provide child care so that mothers who are required to go to work can do so without worrying about what is happening to their children.

I challenge this Congress to send me a bipartisan welfare reform bill that will really move people from welfare to work and do the right thing by our children. I will sign it immediately.

William Jefferson Clinton, State of the Union Address, January 23, 1996.

6.2.b. Children …

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