The Undeserving Poor


Emily writes…

I read an article in the Times Money section a few months ago, (you can read it online at and it struck me as being very relevant, in a funny way, to Ed and myself! What I’m writing here could be fairly contentious stuff, comments please!

‘Spare a thought for the undeserving rich…’

The article discusses people’s perception of high earners and wealth in general, and suggests that the Swedish system of tax record transparency would be a good thing for this country. It is not simply those who are high earners but specifically “those who attract reward without merit” who are seen as offensive to the public, those who are rich through luck. Which I (and the author David Aaronovitch) would suggest are most of the ‘super rich’ talked about in the article.

The author writes that in the British public questioned , “there was a rather touching belief in the notion that the wealthy had somehow deserved their wealth, as there was a rather worrying acceptance that the poor in some way deserved their poverty.”.

First what is poor? A household earning under £200 a week?

What is poverty? Impoverished in terms of what percentage of our income we spend each week? Or in terms of basic food, warmth? Or ideas and company(have later added here education)?

And are those who are poor (earning under, according to the article figures, the average income of £25,000 per person!) really living in poverty?

Should there be a distinction here between being poor and living in poverty? Ed and I class ourselves as low earners and in terms of income, as poor. But we are very rich in belongings, food and lifestyle. There is some discrepancy here then, that people classed as poor are living in poverty… why? If Ed and I weren’t working we would be as well off (but under pressure to take the next job we could). If we worked in a typical minimum wage job full time we would be better off financially. Is the discrepancy here that some on the lowest incomes are sucked in more than ever to the belief of their entitlement to having everything new, and believe in the myth that new things will make them happier?

Maybe I am suggesting that some people’s ‘poverty’ is in fact partly self inflicted? I am not doubting that a shocking number of people in Britain live in poverty on the streets, but the article was not about these people, it was about earners, those ‘part of the system’.

I found myself wondering if Ed and I are actually ‘undeserving poor’. In other words, we choose to be low earners (both being highly educated and having no possible barriers to employment such as disability, ill health or difficult family circumstances) and to live how we do. We do not claim any benefits and we do not deserve to! In fact we do not expect to be entitled to anything (even maternity allowance and tax credits came as a very pleasant surprise that we had not factored in at all!) apart from NHS care and policing, which we pay for through our tax and national insurance. In terms of what we contribute to the economy we are pretty bad sports, there are many gaps in my tax paying history due to low earning (like right now for instance!) and neither of us spend on new items to keep the economy rolling happily along in capitalist consumer heaven, neither of us have plans at the moment to buy a house and take out a huge mortgage loan, in fact neither of us have loans or credit cards… truly we are the undeserving poor who are not playing (paying) by the rules of this crazy world!

And we are still so well off.

I can’t put the two together really: that we possibly earn less than we would if we were claiming the benefits we could if we didn’t work, and yet have absolutely everything we need and want.

I wonder what would happen if more, or everyone, moved a little out of the system as it is?

Someone somewhere should reassess what is really needed to live, what is true poverty. But that is the problem, to keep the economy rolling we are told to spend, to buy, to get loans because ‘we are worth it’, and because we are told to work 9-5, 5 days a week (or else we are lazy, drop outs, unrealistic, not pulling our weight etc. by the way both Ed and I have encountered these views in relation to how we work.) we want to buy new to make ourselves feel better, more attractive and patted on the back. It’s a cynical view,a radical view, but I think for us it fits.


4 Responses to The Undeserving Poor

  1. Jenny says:

    True poverty I think encompasses not just lack of money though that’s a big part of it – it’s a combination also of poverty of education, skills / ability, opportunity, information, and indeed lack of any voice in society. That will be the difference between your child and the very many children growing up ‘in poverty’.

    • Yes absolutely. This article though was only concerned with the financial aspect, which in itself seems amazingly skewed. the financial scale of poverty to wealth also seems totally off the mark. Interesting article in the paper recently about the GDP scale and measuring GDP by other standards not just financial, safety etc, but looking at freedom of speech, education and opportunity.
      what i wanted to highlight in this article was my feeling that being poor financially and living in poverty (in terms of severe lack of any kind, whether that is lack of nutrition, warmth, education or opportunity) simply don’t have to be one and the same.
      Ed and i know we are lucky, privileged people who are educated and informed. And we know we still have a lot to learn about life, about green living, about society and wealth.

  2. kim says:

    Yes! very little is needed to live well. People are being turned into human fodder for economic growth, poor consumers who will never be rich. mad mad world

  3. Clare Sheridan says:

    It’s about what people chose to spend their money on. We pay to belong to Stroud Community Agriculture, and pay for a veg share. People say it is expensive but there is a bursary so that anyone can join in. There is also the added benefit of all the social events. See
    We spent money on solar hot water and solar Photovoltaic panels. People again say they are very expensive. We could have spent that money on a car and those people would have said WOW great! For further info on energy efficiency go to
    Rather than having money sitting in a bank feeding the pockets of bankers – use money wisely and for the environment.
    We both chose to work part time and for charities, we feel we have plenty and as long as we have enough to pay for food and the mortgage bills etc, what counts for more than anything is that we are happy. That is what you two have in abundance.
    Well done!

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