The Victorians, with all their moral certainty and a good dose of Puritan piety were happy to endorse the concept of the deserving and the undeserving poor. Indeed Weber understood this distinction as one of the crucial features of the Protestant Work Ethic.

The idea was essentially that the cause of poverty in individuals may be a function of luck, chance, fate or feckless idleness. The deserving poor were widows and orphans, the disabled and the elderly. Essentially those who could not be expected to work and be self-supporting. The deserving poor deserved charity; the undeserving poor, contempt.

It was even posited in the doctrine of predestination that the signs of Gods’ grace (and displeasure) could be seen in this life. The rich were the blessed, the poor the condemned.

Philanthropists with a spirit of noblesse oblige were happy to devote some good PR and guilt reducing time and effort helping the undeserving poor. Hence the number of charities supporting the old, the blind and the parentless.

But it was quite acceptable to lambast, discriminate, even use what we now call “hate language” about the undeserving poor. They had voluntarily chosen their state: they were guilty of the sin of sloth. They were in essence lazy bums, unwilling to graft for their daily bread. They deserved their fate: they were often mendicants, beggars, contemptible leeches on society.

Governments since the war have been much less happy to make this distinction openly. To some it seems there is now an acceptable myriad of “excuses”, from mysterious illnesses to world-wide economics, to justify unemployment and in some senses to be re-classified as deserving. Deserving of a raft of state hand-outs, paid for by those who work for their daily crust.

Others have always seen the Victorians as hard-hearted and hypocritical; as happy to live in a society with appalling levels of poverty. Condemning people to the ignominy of the work-house and in effect both instituting and condoning what was little more than slave labour. They see the welfare state as a civilising, just, and politically stabilising institution to be proud of.

The poor, as Christ said, will always be with us. As indeed will the argument over how they became poor and what to do about it. But what about the rich? Is there not now a moral outcry about the undeserving rich? Of course, in some eyes, all the rich are underserving.

We used to talk about old money and new money. The former primarily inherited in the form of land, title or business; the latter made in one generation, and lost in the next. Old money had class, breeding and respect-worthiness irrespective of how the wealth was acquired in the first place. Old money was associated with status, grand houses, good royal connections. But old money seemed so often to decline, slowly but inevitably. And for many quite justly.

The real problem is with new money. Here we see the deserving and the undeserving rich. Entrepreneurs like the late Steve Jobs, or the Dragons Den team, artists and writers such as J. K. Rowling or Lloyd-Webber, inventors like Dyson seem to get our approval. It is not so clear with all very successful actors who appear to exploit some small feature (perhaps good looks) while leading unstable, selfish, attention-seeking lives.

Recent events have really clarified matters however. The prototypic undeserving rich are bankers and their buddies in financial markets. Apologists are happy to say that the most hated prototypes like Fred-the-Shred are exceptions; that the sector attracts some of the brightest, most hard-working people; that the City brings in huge revenues for the country; that there is an internationall market and that if the bankers leave (taxed out) we will all be sorry.

The undeserving rich—the overpaid BBC news reader, the local GP, the local council boss—have one thing in common: public money. It seems somehow too easy, too unjust, too selfish to enrich oneself through the public purse. It is the difference between the top and the bottom in the public sector that seems to trigger “undeserving rich anger“. The bank boss vs. the bank teller; the news-reader vs. the canteen dinner lady; the nursing assistant vs. the specialist.

The undeserving rich seem to be characterised by other features too. They seem low, reluctant, and shy on chariable giving. They are prototypically selfish, not selfless. They don‘t spread it about at all.

Second they are haughty, hubristic and supercilious. Very unattractive traits which come to the fore when challenged about their wealth. The more they insist on the fact they are deserving, the less they appear so.

Third, they live in the secret world of the super-injunction. Happy to see the press for Hello! style photo shoots; unobtainable for interrogation by hardtalk investigative journalists. They seem evasive, secretive, dodgy. Not things you would associate with those deserving of their pile.

But worldwide economic melt down and anger has, it seems, blurred the distinction in the mind and eye of the public. All the rich seem undeserving now.

About the Author

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D.

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

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