The Seven Deadly Sins #5 Sloth

Sloth. Indulge me. Close your eyes and conjure up an image. What about a slow-moving, cuddly, mammal hanging upside down in the trees of the tropical rainforests of South and Central America. Or, what about an overweight, unwashed man, lying on the sofa, channel surfing day time TV, reaching out for crisps from a half-eaten family bag?

Sloth is not just about being too slow at doing something. Nor is it just about being lazy.  The dictionary definition includes ‘a reluctance to work’ placing sloth, admittedly an outdated word, at the heart of most of the major social and political questions of the day.

Don’t believe me? Why not add one further descriptor to your image? Imagine that man on the sofa, not just lazily doing nothing, but not working and living totally on benefits from the State. The welfare state supports him with your taxes.

Sloth, or a reluctance to work, leads to poverty and the need to support the poor. Our attitude to sloth is really tied up in how we think about the poor and needy in society.

This is not a new question. It is a five-hundred-year-old problem dating back to 1601 and the Elizabethan Poor Law, its amendment in 1834, and Charles Dickens’ haunting pictures of the Victorian poor.

Through generations we have been vociferously asking questions about society’s role in supporting the poor. The question always being asked was are there both ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor and should we support one group more than the other?

I am not anything like a good enough historian, so I had to revert to Google based research and I let others explain the background.

The nineteenth century view was that there were the deserving poor, who: “worked hard, kept their homes and families clean, went to church regularly, maintained sobriety, and otherwise adhered to middle-class morals. They deserved help because their poverty was not their fault. But the undeserving poor had earned their poverty not only by refusing to work, or to work hard enough, but also by rejecting the middle-class model. If they were poor, it was because they hadn’t tried hard enough.” (

“Yet, many Victorians struggled to understand and explain poverty. Was it because of personal misfortune, because of social circumstances beyond an individual’s control, or, the direct result of a person’s character, their laziness and indolence? Were the poor, therefore, ‘deserving’ or ‘undeserving’? Who was responsible for those who became so poor that they could not maintain themselves and how should these paupers be cared for?” (

“The New Poor Law, based on the new administrative unit of the Poor Law Union, aimed to introduce a rigorously implemented, centrally enforced, standard system that was to be imposed on all and which centred on the workhouse.” (

The Victorians introduced the work house with the very clear understanding that being in the work house had to make those there in a worse position than being in work, a policy decision copied every bit as much today in the way welfare is dispensed. It is a tenet of welfare payments that recipients will always be better off working.

The question is no longer if we should support the poor but is there a difference between the deserving and undeserving and should we treat them differently? This question has not been resolved and is at the heart of most of the biggest political issues we face today.

Government is about making choices and with austerity, still the policy of choice in the Western world, austerity means ever more difficult choices. The question always being asked is how much do we spend on the welfare state and then are there are some who deserve support and help more than others?

Are the sick and infirm more or less worthy of our support than the healthy who can’t find work? Are responsible families that fall on hard times more deserving than the lazy or in the definition, the slothful? In other words, should the welfare state support the ‘deserving poor’ more than the ‘undeserving poor’?

In 2010 the then Archbishop of Canterbury, waded into the debate when apparently, he said “we now have a bloated welfare system that rewards fecklessness and irresponsibility”.

As we head through Brexit we should remember that one of the main social drivers duirng the debate and before the vote, was the fear that the country was going to be inundated by Eastern Europeans and other immigrants. The focus was that all these people were going to arrive and seek benefits.

Do you remember, before the vote, David Cameron shuffling back and forth to Brussels before getting an EC dispensation to change the immigration and benefit rules? It wasn’t enough to save him and we all know what happened next.

The British Social Attitudes survey in the UK about 10 years ago showed that 55% of the UK population subscribed to the view that high benefits encourage poor people to remain poor. Which is undoubtedly why even the Labour party is hesitant to challenge the prevailing mood to limit state support for some of the most vulnerable in our society.

Can, or indeed should, the welfare state ever distinguish between those who deserve help and those who don’t. It becomes fuzzier and greyer when we think about how we support the small children of undeserving parents?

We haven’t even touched on the issue of refugees from war torn Middle East and how many of them are escaping persecution and almost certain death in conflict and how many are economic refugees because conflict gives them no opportunity to support their families.  Is there a difference?

This is not a piece about the welfare state but about sloth and I won’t attempt to even provide an opinion on how to allocate resources in the welfare state. What I do know is that an answer is a long way off. It hasn’t been properly resolved in over 500 years.

Within this series, writing this piece has been the most difficult. Not only have I had to do far more research than expected but I have been taken down unexpected paths.

if we are taking about its ‘lazy’ definition I have a natural sympathy towards sloth. We live in a society where everything has to be done at breakneck speed, there is no place for thinking and immediate gratification is almost compulsory. Taking time and going slower has benefits.

As I said I am quite partial to consensual lust and while wrath and greed have their downsides they have never been so scrutinised by social policy.  What is very clear is that today, we demonise sloth almost more than any of the other ‘deadly sins’ and that is not what I expected when, this morning, I started writing.

The most famous statement on this topic? Norman Tebbit, was a minister in Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. I will leave the last word to him: “I grew up in the ’30s with an unemployed father. He didn’t riot. He got on his bike and looked for work, and he kept looking till he found it.”

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