The New York Times’ Timothy Egan has a good op-ed about a pernicious idea that’s recently made a roaring return into the national discourse: the distinction between the “deserving” vs. the “undeserving” poor. Writing about what he refers to as “two of the most meanspirited actions left on the table by the least-productive Congress in modern history” — cutting food stamps and letting unemployment benefits expire — Egan says:

These actions have nothing to do with bringing federal spending into line, and everything to do with a view that poor people are morally inferior. Here’s a sample of this line of thought:

“The explosion of food stamps in this country is not just a fiscal issue for me,” said Representative Steve Southerland, Republican from Florida, chief crusader for cutting assistance to the poor. “This is a defining moral issue of our time.”

It would be a “disservice” to further extend unemployment assistance to those who’ve been out of work for some time, said Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky. It encourages them to sit at home and do nothing.

“People who are perfectly capable of working are buying things like beer,” said Senator James Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, on those getting food assistance in his state.

And a very merry Christmas to you too, idiots!

I’ll put it this way: if I were unable to find a job, getting my food stamps and unemployment benefits slashed, and then on top of that was subjected to smarmy lectures about my low moral character by these mouth-breathing maroons, not only would I be “buying” beer, I’d be regularly drinking myself into a coma.

Simple-minded, mean-spirited ideas about good poor people vs. bad poor people have a history that goes back many centuries. As early as England’s Elizabethan-era Poor Laws, distinctions between the “deserving” poor — respectable, virtuous folk who were believed to be poor through no fault of their own — and the “undeserving” sort — lazy, dishonest, unmotivated — were encoded into public policy. That ideology persisted, was enforced with particular cruelty during the Victorian period, and came back with a vengeance in the 1980s, when poor-bashing and victim-blaming became all the rage. It persists to this day.

But according to Washington University poverty expert Mark Rank, researchers have found that the behavior of poor people differs little from that of more economically advantaged folks:

Yet my research and that of others has consistently found that the behaviors and attitudes of those in poverty basically mirror those of mainstream America. Likewise, a vast majority of the poor have worked extensively and will do so again. Poverty is ultimately a result of failings at economic and political levels rather than individual shortcomings.

Sure, poor people are not perfect, and some of them engage in destructive behaviors. The main difference is that economically privileged folks can indulge in countless bad behaviors and make any number of boneheaded decisions without paying any serious consequences. Theoretically, if you’re wealthy and well-connected enough, you could spend your twenties hoovering up quantities of cocaine equivalent in worth to the the GDP of a small country, then stumble through your thirties as a hopeless, falling-down drunk — and yet still manage to ascend all the way to the office of the presidency of the United States.

I’m merely speaking theoretically, of course.

But a poor person who exhibited similar behaviors might well end up homeless, in prison, or worse. Particularly in this unforgiving economy, one misstep could mean losing your toehold in the middle class, forever.

You don’t become poor because you’re a terrible person or a defective human being. People are poor because of the way our economy and our society is arranged. As Mark Rank has written, “American poverty is largely the result of structural, rather than individual, failings. There simply are not enough viable opportunities for all Americans.” For example, compared to other rich nations, the U.S. has what is by far the highest proportion of its workers in low-wage jobs. Yet as hard as they work, those workers have found it impossible to work themselves out of poverty.

I really like Mark Rank’s comparison of poverty to a game of musical chairs:

In class, I often use the analogy of musical chairs to help students recognize this disconnect. Picture a game with ten players, but only eight chairs. When the music stops, who’s most likely to be left standing? It will be those who are at a disadvantage in terms of competing for the available chairs (less agility, reduced speed, a bad position when the music stops, and so on). However, given that the game is structured in a way such that two players are bound to lose, these individual attributes only explain who loses, not why there are losers in the first place. Ultimately, there are simply not enough chairs for those playing the game.

The critical mistake that’s been made in the past is that we‘ve equated the question of who loses at the game with the question of why the game inevitably produces losers. They are, in fact, distinct and separate questions. So while characteristics such as deficiencies in skills or education or being in a single parent family help to explain who’s at a heightened risk of encountering poverty, the fact that poverty exists in the first place results not from these characteristics, but from a failure of the economic and political structures to provide enough decent opportunities and supports for the whole of society.

By focusing solely upon individual characteristics, we can shuffle people up or down in terms of their likelihood to land a job with good earnings, but when there aren’t enough of these jobs to go around, somebody will still end up in poverty.

How do we help poor people? The answer is simple. We have abundant proof that anti-poverty programs work. See this recent Columbia University study, for example, which shows that the anti-poverty programs enacted since 1967 — the War on Poverty programs, the EITC, etc. — have reduced the actual poverty rate (as rigorously measured) from 27 percent to 16 percent. Take that, Ronald Reagan! (Reagan loved to troll liberals by sneering, “we waged a war on poverty, and poverty won.”)

To combat poverty, we need to significantly expand existing anti-poverty programs. We also need to increase the earnings of low-wage workers by doing things like enacting macroeconomic policies that promote a full-employment economy, raising the minimum wage, expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, and making it easier to join a labor union. None of this will be easy to pull off politically, off course. But it is well within the power of one of the richest societies the world has ever known to ensure that each one of its citizens has access to the resources she needs to live a decent life. And no, wingnuts, doing so will not undermine the moral character of poor people — though it might cast a harsh light on your own.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee