Bryan Caplan  

"How Deserving Are the Poor?": My Opening Statement

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Thanks to everyone who attended last night's debate, and especially to Karl Smith for being such a good sport.  In the near future, I'll put up a webpage of debate resources, including full video.  For now, here's my opening statement and PowerPoints.

When someone asks for your support, it's natural to wonder, "Why do you need my support in the first place?"  Some answers are better than others.  If your friend asks you to pay for his lunch, "I was just mugged" is a better reason than "I already spent my whole paycheck on beer."  If your girlfriend misses your birthday, "My car and phone both broke down" is a better reason than "I forgot."  If a co-worker goes home early and asks you to cover for him, "I have the flu" is a better reason than "I want to play Skyrim." 

The key difference: If there are reasonable steps the person could take - or could have taken - to avoid his problem.  Your friend didn't have to spend all his money on beer.  Your girlfriend could have put your birthday on her calendar.  Your co-worker could wait to play Skyrim.  These steps may not be appealing, but they are reasonable. There are grey areas, but you can usually tell which is which. 

I propose to use the same standard to identify the "deserving" and "undeserving" poor.  The deserving poor are those who can't take - and couldn't have taken - reasonable steps to avoid poverty. The undeserving poor are those who can take - or could have taken - reasonable steps to avoid poverty.  Reasonable steps like: Work full-time, even if the best job you can get isn't fun; spend your money on food and shelter before you get cigarettes or cable t.v.; use contraception if you can't afford a child.  A simple test of "reasonableness": If you wouldn't accept an excuse from a friend, you shouldn't accept it from anyone.

If I sound harsh, notice: by my standards, many of the poor are clearly deserving: low-skilled workers in the Third World, children of poor or irresponsible parents, the severely handicapped.  Still, on reflection, many people we think of as "poor" turn out to be undeserving. 

Let's start with healthy adults in the First World.  Even the least-skilled full-time jobs pay more than enough for adults to comfortably support themselves.  In the U.S., the average income for janitors is about $25,000/year; the average for maids is about $21,000.  A household with one janitor and one maid averages $46,000, enough to put them at the 96th percentile of the world income distribution - and well above the U.S. poverty line.  Even Americans below the poverty line typically possess a long list of luxuries that the Kings of France would have envied: 80% have air conditioning, nearly three-quarters own a car, two-thirds have cable or satellite t.v., one-third have a plasma or LCD t.v.  My point isn't that all healthy adults in the First World do enjoy such living standards, but that there are reasonable steps they can take - or could have taken - to do so.

 The same logic applies to everyone who used to be a healthy adult in the First World.  Were there reasonable steps you could have taken earlier to avoid poverty?  Sure.  The elderly could have saved more.  The sick could have bought insurance.  It's tempting to say, "When they were young and healthy, they didn't have the money!"  But didn't they have the money for cable t.v. and beer?

Some people think it's pointless to talk about desert.  I disagree.  If you're a libertarian who opposes any government spending on the poor no matter what, you should still consider desert when you give to charity.  Starving Haitian children really do deserve your help more than almost any American.  If you have a more expansive view of the proper role of government, you should still see a big difference between forcing taxpayers to help starving kids, and forcing taxpayers to help irresponsible adults.  If you've ever told a frustrating friend or relative, "It's your mess, you clean it up," you should see the injustice in forcing taxpayers to support undeserving people they don't even know.

The most important lesson, though, is that First World governments' priorities are upside-down.  The Third World contains hundreds of millions of deserving poor: desperate people who would love to work as a janitor for $25,000 a year.  If we owe charity to anyone, we owe it to people who struggle to earn a dollar a day.  But when First World governments hand out charity, the deserving poor in the Third World get next to nothing.  Foreign aid's about 1% of the budget.  Indeed, First World governments actively prevent the world's deserving poor from helping themselves: They make it illegal for them to move to the First World and accept a job from a willing employer.   Even if we owe charity to no one, the least we can do is stop kicking the world's deserving poor while they're down.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (22 to date)
Brian Moore writes:
Your co-worker could wait to play Skyrim.

What!?! This is an obviously nonsensical statement!

George writes:
Your co-worker could wait to play Skyrim.

What!?! This is an obviously nonsensical statement!


DaveEdelstein writes:

What about the children of an undeserving adult? Surely those children in a poor household would be deserving. How do you dispense charity to them while still withholding from the undeserving adults? If all charity is withheld to the household, and if the children grow up to be poor adults, who is to say they are undeserving?

Jim Ancona writes:

The obvious answer to your first question is:
Separate the deserving children from the undeserving adults.

Bill Youngman writes:

How do we address the "undeserving" poor in the United States? How about a felon who is unable to work as a janitor, because of criminal history? What if this man has children, are his children undeserving because of mistakes of the father?

N. writes:

DaveEdelstein has it, and this is what my progressive friends tend to argue: every undeserving adult started out as a deserving child.

Finch writes:

I suppose I see the distinction between children in Haiti and adults in the USA. But I don't see the distinction between adults across geographies. It seems like a significant fraction of adults in the USA face obstacles, and that those obstacles are not categorically different from those faced by people overseas. I think your reasoning is not consistent.

You'd do well to drop the immigration point. It hurts your argument. Not that I'm sold on your argument: it might make sense to help the non-deserving poor because of knock-on effects on their neighbors or children, for example.

John Jenkins writes:

I love that the objection about children that has been raised in the comments at least twice above is clearly answered in the statement itself:

If I sound harsh, notice: by my standards, many of the poor are clearly deserving: low-skilled workers in the Third World, children of poor or irresponsible parents, the severely handicapped.
Before you criticize something, don't you have to read it first?

KenF writes:

"Before you criticize something, don't you have to read it first?"

A throw-away line doesn't answer the objection. Nothing Bryan writes above takes into account the needs of the children of the "undeserving poor."

Andrew writes:

Question: What about the children of the undeserving poor?

Answer: By my standards, many of the poor are clearly deserving including the children of poor or irresponsible parents.

Question: But what about the children of the undeserving poor?

Answer: Is there anything in the above response that distinguishes between deserving/undeserving poor? Or are all poor children clearly included regardless whether or not their parents are deserving?

Question: But what about the children of the undeserving poor?

Answer: Tomato

Finch writes:

If you agree you need to help the children of the non-deserving poor, you are awfully close to helping all the non-deserving poor. And you aren't making much of an argument. Is your argument really "I only think it's permissible to not-help non-deserving adults who do not, and never will, have children."?

All five of them...

Dan Carroll writes:

The distinction is important rhetorically, but is impractical. The government already tries to make distinctions by targeting payments, and it doesn't work well. It is not practical to ask a dim-witted bureaucrat to make a just determination of who deserves and who doesn't.

Since aid to the poor is not likely to be repealed. A more practical approach is to make it simple and difficult to game. The negative income tax is the best proposal I've heard - start off with a check from the government for each citizen, then pay taxes as one earns income. Consider it a work subsidy. If a person can't make life work under that regime, then it is hard to be sympathetic.

PrometheeFeu writes:

@Bryan Caplan:

I'm actually interested in hearing how you would want to deal with the children of undeserving poor parents. I understand you want to help them, but I'm curious whether you would prefer to have the "collateral damage" of helping undeserving poor parents or the "collateral damage" of not helping deserving poor children. Or if you have an idea to avoid the whole collateral damage issue.

Please don't say selling children. Regardless of the merits of the arguments in favor, it just sounds so distasteful that I think it's about as likely to occur as Congress successfully repealing gravity.

Mark V Anderson writes:

I don't want to put words into Bryan's mouth, but my impression of his posting is he's just being theoretical here. Certainly the practicalities are very important, so so is the theory. It is not only the children of the undeserving poor that is a problem, but it is also very difficult to determine who is deserving, even as adults. Bryan implies that all healthy adults are not deserving, but I can think of several possible qualifiers to that:

1) What is healthy? Lots of the poor are considered disabled, some of which is undoubtedly bogus, but it's hard to tell which. The mental problems are often pretty subjective, and many of the physical problems are brought upon themselves.
2) What if a two family household has plenty of income for kids, and then one spouse dies?
3) Same as #2, but one spouse runs away.
4) Someone finds it very difficult to find even a crummy job. They may be a felon, or a discriminated against minority, or they have terrible social skills, or a bad skin condition, etc.

That was a bit of a digression. But my main point is that the theory is important too. The rhetoric about the poor often seems to imply that there is no undeserving poor, so it is important to discuss that, even if the practicalities elude us.

Monica S writes:

Have you read Poor Economics by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo? It argues that even people living on less than a dollar a day tend spend a large portion of their money on things like festivals and tobacco instead of a nutritious diet or investment. Obviously, they could not take reasonable steps to be up to first world standards, but many adults in the third world according to the authors could greatly improve their circumstances but don't for reasons that seem similar to the reasons U.S. adults do not do this. If you have read the book, I would be very interested to hear your comments on it.

Kelvin Tan writes:

How can there be a Skyrim discussion without the "arrow in the knee" meme?

mcarson writes:

I don't trust your numbers on Janitor and Maid income. Please cite them.

Many people make mistakes with these sorts of positions. Be sure your source is not claiming the following:

Many maids and janitors are paid as 'private contractors' to avoid tax and benefit payments on the part of the employer. Many of these private contractors are charged for their materials out of that gross amount. Many people assume maids and janitors always work 40 hours a week, multiplying their hourly wage by 40 even though the industry average is 32 hours a week.

I challenge you to find people in your community who have these jobs, they are rare.

For example, I was paid $1,500 a month as a newscarrier. After deductions by the paper, and before paying for my car and gas, I cleared $550 a month. The maids and janitors I know have similar situations - a large official wage, high deductions and expenses. For example, a maid service pays $15.00 an hour to its cleaners, but they work in 90 minute shifts at 3 houses a day, driving their own car, supplying their own products, paying 'administrative' fees for the record keeping involved. They drive over 50 miles a day and rarely work 7 paid hours, although they are on the road 9 or more. Driving in to the office each day for a meeting and assignments, driving to each home, driving back to the office to check out, are all unpaid, the commuting costs 100% theirs.

Telnar writes:

One nuance when this philosophy gets applied is that government is far less able to passively distinguish between the deserving and undeserving poor than a friend or even a community based charity would be.

If government is going to redistribute based on the degree to which particular people are deserving, then it will need intrusive data collection policies and because it is a near-monopoly provider of some kinds of assistance, its policies to identify the deserving will have a significant coercive effect. That effect won't always be well aligned with what we think of as desirable behavior.

Lewis writes:

Would you ever judge someone in the 1100's as undeserving because they couldn't invent concrete? I don't think so. This technology, and chemistry in general, were not part of conceptual schemas for putting the world together.

I think you underestimate the extent to which lower class Americans grow up with distorted world views. To you it is obvious not to spend money on beer and cigarettes or whatever, but these choices are made little-by-little based on social queues from admired people. They then form habits which are extremely hard to undo. For lower class, young American men, the admired people in their lives might be 20-something macho men who get women but don't exhibit sustainable virtues. Maybe your older sister's boyfriend is an occassional security guard/ occassional drug dealer, but your dad isn't in the picture, and the boyfriend helped fix your fan, tells hilarious jokes and treats you with respect. You'll do what he does and not think anything wrong with it.

Clay writes:

PowerPoint? I thought the real intellectuals that cared about proper formatting and typesetting used LaTeX? Or is that just math majors?

Fateh writes:

I agree with Lewis here. And also that the above situation isn't practical at all. Because you never know the circumstances in each persons life that shaped it and eventually brought him or her to the current position. On the face of it, a person might seem undeserving but you might find a deep-seated reason for having made the seemingly stupid choice that is responsible for the current situation. I think it is impossible to make the judgement here.

Also, even if assuming we could separate, are we going to ignore the undeserving poor altogether? I believe each person deserves a second chance, and each person has some innate goodness/talent in him, and society has a moral obligation to try and help such a person. After all,too err is to be human.
But there is a case for increasing third world aid because no doubt..the need their is far greater than the need in the first world

ParentAdvocate writes:

So many good things about this article. And, similar to other types of content like it, there is always something else to be added in the comments section. Mostly, I like to frame these conversations around policy issues in order to get to the "Why"?

I mostly fault three Presidents: FDR, LBJ, and Clinton, for the messes that have been created where the poor are concerned. LBJ in particular did tremendous harm with his "War on Poverty" and had that never come about, I'm convinced that we would have avoided a LOT of problems, especially when we get into the topic of irresponsible parenting, which I think you could derive from incentives created for single parenting from LBJ's era, and further heightened under Clinton with Welfare reform.

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