Poverty Unmodified?: Critical Reflections on the Deserving/Undeserving Distinction


According to a familiar and influential analysis, antipoverty programs are structured by distinctions between the deserving and undeserving poor. Through techniques like behavioral conditions on benefit eligibility, these moral distinctions divide the poor and interfere with providing assistance to all those in need. This analytical framework animates much critical scholarship on social welfare policy and guides most welfare rights litigation about benefit eligibility requirements.

This Essay challenges this “deservingness analytic” by questioning its separation of deservingness from need, its imagination of the poor as a preexisting population whose need can be conceptualized and determined apart from the moralistic concerns of deservingness. This supposed divide between deservingness and need is breached from both sides: Seemingly moralistic concerns with personal behavior often can be recast as assessments of economic need, and conventional techniques of measuring economic need inevitably implicate moralistic questions about personal behavior. Both phenomena become apparent once we unpack the conventional idea that the extent of “available” resources necessarily affects whether any needs are unmet.

Dismantling the barrier between deservingness and need facilitates new critical perspectives on both concepts. The implicit moral content of need assessments becomes visible and contestable, not for moralism alone but for moral error. I sketch such an argument with regard to the ubiquitous exclusion of childcare from the needs considered by means-tested benefits. Because behavioral conditions and need assessments are linked, new accounts of need also produce new accounts of conditions. For instance, broadening needs to incorporate childcare leads to broadening what should qualify as “work” under a work requirement, the quintessential behavioral eligibility condition.

About the Author

Noah D. Zatz is Professor of Law at UCLA School of Law.

By uclalaw