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400 Years of Systems that Still Hurt the Poor

There is a certain inhumanity to how our society treats the poor.

Going back to the English Elizabethan Poor Laws of 1601 (transferred over to America essentially unchanged when the colonies were founded), there has been a distinction in our society between different types of poor people in regards to their eligibility to receive public assistance. The “worthy” poor who qualified for public assistance were unable to work, typically due to disability or illness.

On the other hand, the “unworthy” poor were able-bodied but did not work; often because there was no work available, though this was not recognized by these laws. These people did not qualify for government-run assistance and the state actively criminalized travel and begging, activities these laws associated with the “unworthy” poor. Though we as a society like to believe that we have evolved and progressed, this four hundred year old ethic continues to this day.

The Federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), has had a requirement for either work, proof that one is searching for work, or proof of a reason one cannot work (e.g. a disability) since the early 70’s, and the requirements continue to get more strict. Similarly, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), another federal program, has had such requirements since its inception in 1996.

The Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP), the state’s program for implementing TANF, naturally shared these requirements from the beginning, and they were made stricter in 2003. Currently in front of the Minnesota legislature is SF3611/HF3722, a bill to add a work requirement to the state’s Medical Assistance (MA) program.

We as a society love judging the poor. We choose to assume that if people are poor, the idea of working hasn’t occurred to them, or they are just too lazy. We scrutinize their actions for any little detail that can justify their poverty in our minds and allow us to label them “unworthy”. Before we provide any help at all, we implement bureaucracy to scrutinize them further, bureaucracy that costs more than is saved, but is politically expedient for everyone else.

Image courtesy of YouTube. To learn more click on the link below to watch video.

Repealing these measures and others that are surely on their way would mean confronting the ethic underlying the Elizabethan Poor Laws. This would require us as a society to reexamine our conception of what it means to be wealthy or poor, what kinds of labor we ignore, how we as a society can, with a clear conscience, allow people to suffer needlessly because they are the “unworthy”. That kind of soul searching takes time and it does not help the people in society’s crosshairs until it is finished.

This is why Daily Work is such a critical part of the nonprofit ecosystem here in the Twin Cities. While our society wrestles with our long-standing and wrongheaded ideas of worth and tries to reconcile that with the high-minded ideals we espouse, we at Daily Work labor to help those without jobs to navigate both the natural needs in their lives (such as the need for food, shelter, and medical care) and the barriers to fulfilling those needs put in their way.

But we are not enough. Our budget is not enough, our scope is not enough, and in most cases jobs are not enough. This is the part where I would typically ask you for your support, but really what we need is structural change. So please, support Daily Work. We do a lot of good work with very little, and every dollar supports people in poverty in overcoming the barriers they face in finding progressively better work and career pathways that pay a livable wage.

But also support the Union Gospel Mission, and Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services (SMRLS), and the Children’s Defense Fund, and Small Sums, and Microgrants, and any other nonprofit you know of that strives to help poor people. Contact your state legislators and tell them to fight for the poor and against work requirements-- again, SF3611 and HF3722 are the work requirement bills currently in front of them. Vote next Tuesday and at every opportunity hereafter.

Challenge your friends and loved ones when they make disparaging remarks and assumptions about the circumstances of poor people. Challenge yourself when you feel the urge to switch the side of the street you’re walking on, or sit on the other side of the train, or avoid eye contact with certain people. These urges and systems and structures have built up over 400 years and they will not become more humane overnight, but change starts from personal actions like these.

At Daily Work, we see a future where everyone gets a chance to work, grow, and contribute their skills. Your contributions, financially and in other ways, means that more people can stop struggling and start thriving in work, family, and life.

To learn more, watch this YouTube video from C. Nicole Mason

By Josh Brooks, Case Management Intern



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