The Deserving Poor, the Undeserving Poor, and Class-Based Affirmative Action

67 Pages Posted: 17 Aug 2016 Last revised: 16 Jun 2017

Date Written: June 15, 2017


This Article is a critique of class-based affirmative action. It begins by observing that many professed politically conservative individuals have championed class-based affirmative action. However, it observes that political conservatism is not typically identified as an ideology that generally approves of improving the poor’s well-being through the means that class-based affirmative action employs — that is, through redistributing wealth by taking wealth from a wealthy individual and giving it directly to a poor person. This is precisely what class-based affirmative action does: it takes a seat in an incoming class (a species of wealth) from a wealthy individual and gives it directly to a poor person. This Article attempts to reconcile this apparent contradiction. Interestingly, engaging in this project of reconciliation reveals very little about conservatism, but a lot about class-based affirmative action. This Article proposes that class-based affirmative action enjoys widespread support from people across the political spectrum because it is imagined to benefit the “deserving poor.” Unlike the “undeserving poor,” the “deserving poor” are those who cannot be blamed for their poverty; their impoverishment is not due to individual behavioral or character flaws, but rather to structural or macro forces well outside of an individual’s control. Class-based affirmative action enjoys bipartisan political popularity because it is imagined to benefit these respectable poor people — folks who are deserving of a “leg up” in the admissions competition and deserving of programs designed to assist them, even if those programs involve a direct transfer of wealth from the wealthy to the poor. However, that political conservatives and liberals alike currently imagine class-based affirmative action to benefit the deserving poor is a reason for alarm. Alarm bells should ring because, throughout history, the categories of the deserving and undeserving poor have been racialized — and, frequently, racist. To be precise, it has been difficult for people of color — black people, particularly — to access the ranks of the deserving poor. If history is a teacher, then, we might expect that it will be difficult for society to continue to imagine that the beneficiaries of class-based affirmative action are the deserving poor if these class-conscious programs disproportionately benefit racial minorities. Indeed, if history is a teacher, then class-based affirmative action will lose its popularity if poor racial minorities — who have always figured within the cultural imaginary as the embodiment of undeservingness — are (or are imagined to be) class-based affirmative action’s primary beneficiaries. The Article explores the case of AFDC/TANF and unemployed single mothers as an example of the racist nature of deservingness. It argues that, if class-based affirmative action functions to assist people of color in disproportionate numbers, it, like AFDC/TANF before it, will be reimagined to be a program that assists the undeserving poor, and its political tenability will suffer as a result.

Keywords: affirmative action, Fisher v. Texas, AFDC, TANF, welfare, critical race theory

Suggested Citation

Bridges, Khiara M., The Deserving Poor, the Undeserving Poor, and Class-Based Affirmative Action (June 15, 2017). Emory Law Journal, Vol. 66:1049, 2016, Boston Univ. School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 16-30, Available at SSRN: or

Khiara M. Bridges (Contact Author)

Boston University - School of Law ( email )

765 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston, MA 02215
United States
(617) 358-6187 (Phone)


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