Bryan Caplan  

In Search of the Deserving Poor

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While vacationing in Italy, I kept thinking about philosopher Matt Zwolinski's thoughts on the deserving and undeserving poor:
[T]he mere fact that there is a valid moral distinction to be made does not entail that we want our public policies to make it.  It is, after all, difficult to discern between the deserving and the undeserving - maybe especially for governments, but for private charities too. 
But on reflection, distinguishing the deserving from the undeserving poor is no harder than a thousand other moral distinctions we routinely make.  Here are three plausible approaches:

1. Asking "Who is poor through no fault of their own?"  The leading answers, of course, are (a) children whose parents can't or won't take care of them, and (b) severely handicapped adults.  The common thread is that both groups have such low productivity that they even if they work hard, they won't be able to support themselves.  It's tempting to add people who are too old to work, but we should resist temptation.  They could have provided for their own retirement if they'd saved responsibly and prudently bought insurance.

2. Asking "Who is poor by their own fault?"  The leading candidates are (a) unemployed adults who could at least find a low-paid, unpleasant job, (b) people who lose their jobs for tardiness, absenteeism, or insubordination, and (c) people who abuse alcohol and drugs.  If the poor want subsidized health care rather than income, we should add smoking, obesity, and unsafe sex to the list of behaviors that make them undeserving.

3. Asking, "Who is poor because their rights have been violated?"  Crime victims, slaves and former slaves, people punished for breaking unjust laws, and would-be immigrants are all good candidates.  Two caveats: (a) In most of these cases, the victimizer should certainly be first in line to help, and (b) We should exclude cases where victimization could have been avoided or heavily mitigated by prudent behavior or buying insurance.

These standards are preliminary, and no doubt they could be improved.  But they're good starting points.  And if you think reasonable people could disagree here, it's an argument against forced charity.  There's always a presumption against initiating the use of force against a peaceful person.  "Any morally reasonable person would agree that I'm forcing you to help the deserving poor" at least arguably overcomes this presumption.  "Who knows whether the people I'm forcing you to help are deserving?" does not.

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COMMENTS (19 to date)
Nicholas Weininger writes:

Aren't you missing the point here, though? You're saying that given a true and complete picture of someone's history and circumstances it is usually easy to decide whether they are deserving. Sure. But the problem is that people actually in a position to judge, whether in government or private charity, do not have access to true and complete pictures of the people they are judging-- in part because no one ever has this, in part because they are dealing with people who may have a specific incentive to misrepresent themselves.

Consider for example the problem of determining who is really disabled enough to qualify for SSDI. The current system, from what little I've heard of it, does a terrible job of this in both directions: it gives expensive disability benefits to plenty of people who could work, while making many desperate people who cannot work jump through painful hoops to get their needs met (if not denying them altogether). Suppose you were administering a private version of SSDI funded by voluntary charity. How would you do better at this?

mark writes:

Good post but a lot depends on who is making the distinction and for what purpose. I would not want governments to make this distinction but to pick some mechanism that avoided the need to try to make it. But for a private person to make his or her own judgment when disposing of his or her own money seems as justified and legitimate as you argue.

PrometheeFeu writes:

I vaguely agree with much of your post but I am still somewhat uncomfortable with it.

Let's take 2.a. Let's say a woman is poor and the only job she can find is as a prostitute, a stripper or some other form of work in the sex industry. Many people would argue that the "degrading" nature of the work she is offered means she is still a "deserving poor" even if she turns that work down. Yet, many people work in the sex industry and some at least are quite happy. So you could argue that the work is perfectly fine and that by refusing this work this woman is being overly picky and therefore undeserving. Would you consider some jobs to be so emotionally, physically or psychologically draining that refusing such a job would not make you undeserving? If so, how would you make that distinction? Is that standard subjectively based upon the "poor"'s view of said work? Let say the woman above used to be in the sex industry. Does that change whether or not she is deserving when she refuses to return to her old job?

Another "hard" example I can think of would be of a job whose hours would prevent you from seeing your family regularly. Or how about a job whose hours would prevent you from continuing your search for another better job?

I am also interested in the notion of disability. What makes someone disabled as opposed to simply incompetent? For instance, could we consider that someone who has poor time management skills and therefore has chronic tardiness would be deserving? If they had a track record of attempting to improve and failing such as by taking time-management workshops would that change anything?

I think those are hard questions and I would like to hear what Bryan and commentators have to say about them.

More easily, I would add to the list those who are victims of discrimination. If you can't get work because people of your ethnicity are discriminated against, you are clearly deserving.

PrometheeFeu writes:

As a general rule, I like systems where properties are self-revealing. So when it comes to the "deserving/undeserving" classification, here is what I favor: Give everyone a relatively fixed amount of money X which should be sufficient for rent, food, health insurance. (Basically ensuring you survive with some basic human dignity) The undeserving poor are those who still don't have enough to pay the bills. Such a system would also encourage innovation and individual risk taking knowing that starvation is off the table.

RobF writes:

Obviously this issue is more complicated than can be resolved in a single blog post and a couple dozen comments. A point I would add is that in addition to the complexity around the moral distinctions between "deserving" and "undeserving" poor, there is also complexity around the practical matter that sometimes it is simply more cost-effective to provide food, re-hab, daycare, or even cash than it is to pay for more property insurance, a larger police force, and bigger prisons. Police and prisons are public goods that for which most people accept the case for taxation. Programs that reduce the need for police and prisons are also public goods.

Lord writes:

For someone always emphasizing genes I should think you would believe nearly everyone deserving.

Philo writes:

In view of the *cost* of distinguishing between deserving and undeserving poor people (a topic you should have addressed; see Nicholas Weininger's comment, above), the government might plausibly try using some extremely crude criterion--one that was easy and cheap to apply--to determine who was eligible for governmental support. But such a system would be "gamed," with results the public would find objectionable, so in practice the criteria would be in constant flux, in the familiar regulatory rent-seeking "chess game" (as Arnold Kling calls it).

jb writes:

My soul agrees with your model, my brain does not. Specifically, far too many people seem to have no mental ability to make and follow through on long term plans. They are addicted to the now, and no amount of training, threats or argument will break that addiction. Many of these people will be fine until retirement, and then their inability to plan ahead smacks them right in the face.

Are these people "deserving" poor? At least somewhat deserving? Aren't they, in their own way, handicapped? They paid taxes into the system their whole lives (and because they lack planning ability, they probably pay a larger %age than others). Is it ok to throw them out in the street?

I've heard that argument before - that without fear of starvation, people will innovate more. I'm afraid I don't see a lot of evidence - where's the hotbed of innovation coming from Europe? It seems to me it's far easier (and incredibly cheap) to play video games all day, rather than take a risk and create something new that has a high chance of failure.

Foobarista writes:

How about those who are poor by choice, such as (pre-success) entrepreneurs, grad students, artists, most writers, performers, lower-league pro athletes, etc?

They're either sacrificing potential better income for now for a possible big payday in the future, or they're doing something they love.

Are they "deserving" or not?

Mo writes:

Like others have said, the problem is not that the questions can't be asked but that there is information asymmetries.

Charities or government have a lack of information because they are removed from the situation, people can lie, and the relative importance of each element is hard to determine (e.g. how much did drug use contribute to being disabled and how much did other exogenous factors?).

However, for close friends or family members, we can usually ask and answer these questions because we know the whole story.

Philo writes:

Do I get any credit for helping the poor if I do something that reduces (perhaps even eliminates) the poverty of *future people*? Or are we interested only in *presently existing* poor people?

Jim Ancona writes:

Your "fixed amount of money" idea sounds a lot like Charles Murray's
In Our Hands : A Plan To Replace The Welfare State. He proposes that the government replace all existing transfer programs (welfare, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, agricultural subsidies, corporate welfare...) with a single lump sum payment of $10,000 per year (adjusted for inflation), tax free, to every adult over 21, with the stipulation that $3,000 of it be spent on health insurance and the strong recommendation that $2,000 be invested toward retirement income. Once an individual's earned income reaches $25,000, the grant is taxed until at $50,000 half is given back.

He then explores the possible impacts of such a change. It's an interesting question for libertarians: Would you be willing to accept a permanent large spending program in return for much less government involvement in day-to-day economic life?

nemi writes:

Yes exactly.

To, by FORCE, maybe take one percent MORE of my income - and giving it to some possibly DESERVED POOR – is clearly the work of Nazis.
So what if the state will have to throw some people, who were undeserved poor, in jail for stealing my property to get by. This clearly can´t be another expression of the state using force against a person, since they now use it in a way that I approve of.

Allen writes:

I’m in the odd position of being a libertarian and working as a disability examiner. Nicholas is right that the disability program doesn’t work very well, but in my experience other flaws are more dangerous than the incentive to misrepresent. Since disabilities have to be supported by observable medical evidence (MRIs, x-rays, or other medical testing) misrepresentations are frequently caught.

The first problem is advantages written in the rules for older individuals. I hear stories from my friends and family about people who we have provided benefits to who play golf on the weekends etc. This isn’t a mistake. If someone is limited to lighter work, over 50, and has an unskilled or “heavy” work history, we provide benefits to people who we know could get work as a cashier, etc. The logic is based on the idea that older people will have a harder time adjusting to industries and jobs they haven’t done, but with some examination the argument falls apart.

The second problem is the process we use to make decisions. While the standards are somewhat different, the procedures and policies we use closely reflect private insurance operations. We avert the problem Caplan noted altogether by creating a public insurance company instead of public philanthropy. The agency aims to serve the deserving poor, but the process it employs is far too rigid. Moreover DIB benefits are provided based on work history instead of need. This means a wealthy individual who has paid Social Security taxes is eligible to apply for benefits.

Even if all of the problems were fixed I don’t think the government should be involved. Caplan and other commenters note that discerning the deserving is difficult for public and private organizations, but this misses the point. Pricing goods and services is just as difficult as making the moral judgments required for discerning the deserving poor. Charities that either provide benefits to the undeserving or fail to provide benefits to the deserving will lose funding from donors. As the spontaneous process continues the morals of donors will be reflected by nonprofit organizations.

I would have been very uncomfortable with this argument as an undergraduate econ major. I’ve come to this view through my work experience and exposure to new ideas. Some are concerned about how a privately funded charitable sector could be funded to meet the needs of the poor, but this argument takes a far too limited view of what “self interest” means.

Braden writes:

"For someone always emphasizing genes I should think you would believe nearly everyone deserving."

This was my initial reaction too, but I think people who are genetically prone to poor time management will respond better to incentives than people who are severely handicapped, so insulating them from tragedy is less efficient, even in a psychologically deterministic model.

D writes:

Well put, Allen.

BTW, you and I do the same job!

PrometheeFeu writes:

@jb: The welfare system in most European countries is far from what I am advocating. It often involves a trench digging contest in paperwork and is granted based on byzantine criteria. This creates uncertainty about the safety net. What I am advocating is you just get the money and pay it back with your taxes if your income is high enough.

@Jim Ancona: Yes, this is the sort of thing I speak of. I prefer monthly payments though. That way, if you don't have the skills to manage a budget effectively, you screw up and learn one month at a time rather than poorly planning your year and starving in October because you forgot to account for some bill or other. And if you really wanted a lump sum, you could always borrow for the year against that guaranteed stream.

Gil writes:

I believe Caplan's point is that trying to get a perfect model for government welfare to only go towards the deserving poor is nigh on impossible. Who's disabled but not enough to qualify for disability payments? Either deserving people are going to be turned away or undeserving people are going get in. Thus the solution is to let private charity sort it out and if you're willing to fund undeserving poor so that all deserving poor get helped then knock yourself out.

John F writes:


The government, in any way acting as an agent of altruism, is an invitation to the dissolution of a democracy. Political hacks, I'm going to guess, will administer any "aid" program to reward their voters to the detriment of all others (Think, Community Reinvestment Act). No matter the "morally reasonable" hope, it's always going to be two wolves and a sheep voting the issue of what's for dinner.

Charity should be private and humanly fallible, not coerced and humanly venal.

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