No theory forbids me to say "Ah!" or "Ugh!", but it forbids me the bogus theorization of my "Ah!" and "Ugh!" - the value judgments. - Theodor Julius Geiger (1960)

The Poor Person

Rights and duties in society are complexly related, especially when we look at supporting the poor. Here, rights and duties interrelate and impact social structures and individual behavior. In a social context, each individual's duty corresponds to another's right. Rights are primary, and duties arise from these rights. This creates a network where fulfilling one’s duty is inherently linked to respecting another’s right. Two contrasting perspectives exist: one where duties toward others are seen as moral imperatives derived from social relationships, and another where duties are self-imposed, stemming from personal ethical standards and autonomy. In some societies, beggars may view alms as their right, seeing it a moral duty for others to provide support. In contrast, support within a social group, like a family or community, may be seen as a responsibility based on mutual dependence and shared membership. Support motivated by personal moral duty is different from support mandated by societal institutions. Institutional support often aims to maintain social stability and prevent societal harm, rather than addressing the needs of the individual poor person. Medieval almsgiving was often more about the giver’s moral standing than the recipient’s needs. Modern welfare systems, while still focused on societal stability, strive to balance individual needs with broader social goals.


Legal frameworks surrounding poor relief, such as the obligation of the state or relatives to support the poor, often stem from practical considerations rather than moral imperatives, reflecting a societal interest in preventing poverty-related issues rather than directly addressing the rights of the poor.


Despite the often impersonal nature of institutional support, the poor remain integral members of society. Their needs and the responses to them shape social dynamics, reflecting a continuous interaction between individuals and the collective. Poor relief organically integrated into community life and was subsequently institutionalized. In early England, care for the poor was managed by monasteries and church societies due to their enduring property, as secular donations were unreliable. This link between poor relief and stable social structures was highlighted by the negative reaction to foreign clergy neglecting the poor. Over time, poor taxes in England were tied to land ownership, reflecting a deep sociological connection where the poor were considered an integral part of the land. In 1861, a shift occurred when responsibility for the poor was partially transferred from parishes to a collective fund, rejecting the individualistic approach. This shift represented the broader social structure, wherein individuals, including the poor, were seen as components of a supra-personal entity, the community.


Different social systems, like ethnic or church-based societies, determine the place and responsibility for the poor. Modern welfare systems evolved from local to broader state responsibilities. Initially, local communities provided for the poor based on immediate social bonds. As mobility and state policies changed, poor relief became more centralized, with communities acting as agents of the state. This shift emphasized objective, minimal support, avoiding excessive generosity to prevent dependence and resource misallocation.


State systems focus on objective, minimal support due to their broad, impersonal nature, while private charity is more subjective and personal. This balance between state and individual responsibility reflects a complex sociological relationship where societal norms and individual actions intersect to shape welfare practices. State welfare in England addressed only the most extreme poverty without considering personal worthiness, while private charity selectively aids individuals, aiming to restore their ability to support themselves. The state's approach is causally focused on alleviating poverty, whereas private charity has a teleological intent to help the poor person become self-sufficient. State aid is of an impersonal nature, while private charity is more personal and connected to other social interactions, such as religious relationships and the way one sees ‘Truth’. This distinction is mirrored in criminology debates over whether punishment should target the crime itself or the criminal.


In France, private charity primarily addresses the most urgent needs, while the state provides additional support. There is fluidity between public and private aid; fundamental economic and cultural conditions influencing poverty must be addressed by the community as a whole.


Poverty is relative and socially constructed. Different social strata have varying standards of needs, meaning that poverty can be experienced and perceived differently across groups. Gifts can reveal social relationships and support mechanisms.


The poor play a dual role in society, compared to that of the stranger. The poor are simultaneously inside and outside the social group, being objects of support while still influencing the community. Poverty is sociologically important, not solely the material deprivation but also the social reactions and the receipt of support. This aligns with modern views that define social roles and personal worth through societal interactions and responses rather than intrinsic qualities.


Individuals do not form a unified social category merely by being poor. Instead, they are categorized based on their occupations or social standings. When they receive assistance, they enter a distinct social circle characterized by poverty. This group is defined not by internal interaction but by society's collective attitude towards them.


Historically, there have been attempts to organize the poor into associations, such as the medieval guilds of the poor in Norwich and Germany. With increasing social differentiation, such associations became impractical due to the diverse backgrounds and interests of the poor.


Extreme poverty, such as homelessness, can create a sense of community among the affected individuals, as seen in the informal organizations of the homeless in Berlin. These groups sometimes have leaders and internal rules, offering a rudimentary form of social structure.


Modern society tends to hide poverty, driven by improved general well-being, closer police supervision, and a social consciousness that finds the sight of poverty intolerable. This tendency to conceal poverty prevents the poor from feeling like a coherent social stratum, unlike in the Middle Ages. Poverty is the common endpoint for people from various social backgrounds, making it a reservoir for all social changes. This creates a dreadful situation where people are defined solely by their poverty, lacking any other social qualification. The absence of political rights for recipients of alms reflects their lack of any social identity beyond their poverty. This passive element of poverty prevents the formation of a unifying social force among the poor. Poverty thus represents a unique social constellation where individuals are organically part of society due to their condition, but this position is determined by others' efforts to correct their deficiency. It’s not the personal deficiency itself that defines poverty, but the societal response to it.


Simmel, G. (1908), Der Arme, in: Soziologie, p. 454-493, Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot.