POOR PEOPLE’S BODIES have always told stories about poverty’s origins and remedies. In their own accounts, poor people say their bodies often fail them. But in the stories that are told about them, their bodies more often signal defects of character and effort and even betray them as frauds.
Indeed, the imperfect bodies of the poor are an intriguing barometer for a century’s interpretations of inequality and injustice. In the 1920s and 1930s, Melbourne’s early social workers filled their case notes with tales of evasion and deception. Casting themselves as detectives on the trail of “mendicants”, they helped to cement an understanding of poverty in which “paupers” threatened always to overcome the kindness of their benefactors. In recent years, tales of prematurely dependent, overly fertile, obese or suspiciously frail bodies burdening the taxpayers have played an important role in bolstering the case for early 21st-century welfare reform. In between, the physical sufferings of the poor were taken more as a symbol of a collective failure to protect people against the consequences of illness, infirmity and lack of opportunity.
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