Sunday, January 29, 2012

Who cares how "deserving" the poor are?

Bryan Caplan is apparently about to debate Karl Smith on the question of "How deserving are the poor?" I want to get my two cents in ahead of this debate, by asking the counter-question: "Who cares?"

The question of "How deserving are the poor" is a matter of opinion. There is no right answer, because to say someone "deserves" something is a prescriptive statement, and you can't prove those with facts. Also, it is a somewhat pointless question, because no matter what answer you decide you like, it doesn't really imply any particular policy prescription. In practice, people who say "The poor deserve to be poor" are usually just trying to push the idea that we shouldn't try to do anything about poverty other than scolding the poor for their own mistakes (I'll come back to this idea in a bit). But this doesn't really follow.

As I see it, there are two important questions about poverty from a policy perspective: 

1. Do we want to make poor people less poor?

2. If we do want to do that, how do we accomplish it?

Bryan Caplan's answer (and Tyler Cowen's) to the question of "How deserving are the poor" is that if people are poor mainly as a result of their own actions, then they deserve to be poor. But as I see it, whether people are poor because of their own actions doesn't really help us answer either of the two questions I posed above.

Regarding the first of my questions, "Do we want to make poor people less poor", it may be that your sense of morality tells you that if someone is in a condition as a direct result of their own actions, it would be wrong to try to remove that person from that condition. Fine, good for you and your sense of morality! But for my part, I simply don't care. If I am getting mugged by a poor person, I quite frankly do not give a rodent's gluteal region whether that person is poor because he made bad life choices or because the circumstances of his birth made his poverty inevitable; I want him to stop mugging me, and if making him less poor will make him stop mugging me, then maybe this would be a good thing to do, regardless of whether he "deserves" it. When I witness the urban blight, violence, drug abuse, and other social ills that poverty may be causing, as a non-poor person I have an interest in preventing these social ills from affecting me, regardless of whether the ills are "deserved."

Also, whether people are poor because of their own actions doesn't really tell us how to get them out of poverty. Scolding and finger-wagging does not work. Just because a person's actions got him into a situation doesn't mean that his actions can get him out of it. And even if poor people could raise themselves up out of poverty at any time, scolding and finger-wagging is not likely to induce them to suddenly do so. The conservative solution to poverty - make it really, really unpleasant to be poor, and then hope people will do the smart thing and avoid it - has failed and failed and failed again.

So from my point of view, asking whether or not poor people "deserve" their poverty is asking the wrong question.

That said, I think the Caplan definition of "deserve" is not as "uncontroversial" a moral premise as Caplan declares. The reason is that it is a partial-equilibrium definition, not a general-equilibrium one. If we live in a society in which X percent of the populace must be poor, then no matter what set of actions is taken by the population, some people will wind up in poverty. To see this, imagine that we lived in a society in which the hardest-working 50% of people get to be spectacularly rich, and the other 50% are forced to live in squalid poverty. In this society, if everyone raises their effort by 1000%, the number of people in poverty stays exactly the same. I doubt that most people would say that the lower half of the population "deserved" to stay in poverty after raising their effort by 1000%! But that is exactly what Caplan's definition implies. Also, note that in such a world, whether you "deserve" to be poor depends critically on the actions of other people (since the degree of effort required for a person to raise himself out of poverty depends on how much effort others are expending)...thus, Caplan's definition doesn't really seem to capture the notion of individual responsibility.

But anyway, that is a bit beside the point, because in my opinion the whole question is a bit of a pointless one.

Update: Tyler Cowen emails to say that his view of "deserving" is a more synthetic one than Bryan Caplan's. Also, in his post he says "There is the view that desert simply is not very relevant for a lot of our choices.  We still may wish to aid the undeserving." This is pretty close to my thoughts.


  1. Anonymous4:43 AM

    I am concerned that any argument about helping the poor relies upon the benefit to me (or the non-poor), in the form of security/safety/health care etc. Because if the only reason for me to help is my own physical health and safety, the choice becomes one of a) solving poverty and b) building a very high fence (physical and social) to keep the riff-raff out.

    You can see which is going to appeal more to a lot of people. Particularly if they are convinced that eradicating poverty won't work, but that "their" fences will. (Everybody thinks their fences are better than average).

  2. Hugo Heden6:38 AM

    Noah, seems you're touching on the view the poverty is much a *structural* problem. It's macro - not micro. It's not fundamentally about people being lazy.

    It's like unemployment. You can train your unemployed to be super experts. You can "force" them to seek work by completely cutting off benefits. But if there isn't enough jobs, there'll still be unemployed.

    You'll still get mugged.

    Like MMT:er Randy Wray says, it's like letting 10 dogs chase after 8 bones. If two of them end up boneless and starving, it doesn't mean it's their own fault - the problem is structural, not individual.

  3. Anonymous9:48 AM

    That is very much a misreading of my post which you link to, for instance "Yet other perspectives must be brought to bear...There is the view that desert simply is not very relevant for a lot of our choices. We still may wish to aid the undeserving."
    Tyler Cowen

  4. DavidN10:12 AM

    'Just because a person's actions got him into a situation doesn't mean that his actions can get him out of it’.

    Sometimes people don’t have a choice. We know that if our parents are educated and rich the chances are we are also going to be educated and rich because we have access to all the resources to make us successful. If we are born poor we are behind the eight ball and the level of effort and luck to get to the same position as a person being born in the ‘right' circumstances is greater. If you’re really unlucky, suppose for example born to a poor drug using chronically unemployed single parent you have almost no chance.

    But it’s not just luck, sometimes it’s institutional, think apartheid, segregation, disenfranchisement, elites dictating policy on the premise that only they are capable of making the ‘right’ decisions conveniently ignoring the fact that it’s often the policies they implement that make it impossible for non-elites to better themselves. If we accept the premise that 'people are poor mainly as a result of their own actions’ and the implication 'they deserve to be poor’ we might never have implemented universal education and suffrage and might still be stuck in a medieval timewarp.

    Apart from that I agree with you the question of whether ‘poor people deserve to be poor’ is irrelevant but don’t give them a free pass on the false premise.

  5. Julie Fauble Garrett11:02 AM

    Even if you accept the premise of poverty being deserved for adults, it doesn't answer the question of what to do about the children of the poor. No one can argue that children deserve poverty, that they are poor because of their actions. So if one's argument is that the only reason you're not helping poor adults is that they don't deserve help, then you still need policies that help the children. Yet, my impression is that those who talk about "deserving" aren't interested in funding programs for children either, which means the morality angle is just a cover for not caring and not wanting to help.

    Another issue is, if we're going to be judging the "undeserving" poor, wouldn't it then make sense to talk about the undeserving rich? If someone is rich through no actions of their own, should they have special tax breaks? After all, the argument for lower taxes on the rich is that they're making a special contribution to society with some sort of job-creation mojo. If instead, they just inherited a pile of money and they're not doing anything with it, do they deserve it?

    Perhaps making policy based on what we consider deserving isn't the best idea. I prefer policy that starts from a principle of universal human dignity.

  6. Anonymous1:18 PM

    I think that even if you have people who are in poverty who might 'deserve' it, doesn't mean that we shouldn't craft policies that try to alleviate poverty, even if that means some of the policies help those who might not 'deserve' it.

    It certainly isn't the way the right thinks about how we should treat those with wealth. Often the argument for lower taxes for the wealthy is that they work hard for their money and deserve it, plus they create jobs. This may be true of some, but it certainly isn't true of all, yet no one on the right seems bothered that some folks benefit from policies that target a supposed 'deserving' group.

  7. The notion of "deserve" is intrinsically moral and largely independent of actual, causal agency because agency is embedded in the notion itself.

    My old philosophy professor would occasionally bring up a moral tale or fable and ask us to identify alternative views that were still arguably consistent with the moral environment in which the tale found its being.

    It was his way of demonstrating that whatever point the tale made was probably contestable from the very beginning.

    In the case of Aesop's "the ant and the grasshopper." The original form of course condemns the grasshopper and lauds the ant.

    Few of the the alternatives lauded the grasshopper -- the middle ages wasn't invariably religious (religious folk just wrote the histories) but it was fairly tough on those who couldn't take care of themselves -- but more than one sent the ant to hell; e.g., unlike the grasshopper who committed fault (possibly punishable by a stay in purgatory) the ant withheld charity.

  8. Poverty is relative. No matter how rich we are the bottom 10 or 20% will see themselves and be seen as poor. In fact someone at the 20% percentile for income in the United States would probably be seen as comfortable or prosperous through most of the world and human history.

    I am all for mitigating poverty both so I won't get mugged again (the doctors tell me that I will never fully recover from the last mugging) and out of human decency.

    The concern about efforts to mitigate poverty is the moral hazard problem. Programs designed to reduce the consequences (cost) of self destructive behaviors will (basic economics) result in an increase in self indulgent self destructive behavior. I think this is what discussion of "deserving" poverty tries to address.

    The 2010 census found that 27% of children live in single parent homes. That is a huge problem with long run consequences. It seems to be an open question how much past efforts to mitigate poverty has led to increases in single parent families and children living in poverty.

  9. I'm surprised nobody is remarking on the ambiguity of the question.

    Is it asking how deserving the poor are of their poverty?

    Or is it asking how deserving the poor are of assistance?

    it is easy to see how switching meanings in the middle of a debate could get very ugly.

    Are we deserving of a clarification? :-)

  10. Anonymous7:14 PM

    How deserving are the rich?

  11. This is a variation on the free rider problem that conservatives and Libertarians obsess over. Of course, they never mention disproportional gains from economic rent that characterizes the top of the scale.

    But is it mostly a free rider problem? That is an incorrect assumption, I believe, based on the notion that the poor are lazy, indigent, and looking for handouts.

    The reality is that most poor people are in poverty because even though will and able to work, they either cannot get work in their locale for lack of jobs at their knowledge and skills level, or their job does not pay a living wage, i.e., a compensation package that is above the poverty line.

    If this is a failure of the system, which it seems to be, then the people at the bottom become "wards of the state" since countries with developed economies do let poor people starve. Then the question becomes whether the system is doomed to chronic failure or can a more effective and efficient system be implemented through policy choices based on application of a Post Keynesian macro theory that differs significantly from mainstrean apporaches (New Classical and New Keynesian) as well as Austrian economics.

    Modern monetary theorists have proposed a policy solution based on a macro theory. See L. Randall Wray, Understanding Modern Money: The Key to Achieving Full Employment and Price Stability (Elgar 1998) and Wm. Mitchell and Joan Muysken, Full Employment Abandoned (Elgar 2008).

  12. Actually, the framing of the question relies on an assumption that the rich are rich and the poor are poor because of intrinsic merit, contra what Julie Faubel Garrett said about human dignity.

    Thus, you have the meritocracy, whose merit is based on birth and inherited superior status of the elite. From there, it's a very short journey to divine right of kings - or presidents, for that matter. I recall W saying that God chose him for the presidency.

    DavidN's casual mention of medieval attitudes is right on point. The modern conservative agenda is to undo not only SS and the New Deal, but universal suffrage, the bill of rights, and indeed, the enlightenment, from which our Declaration of Independence and Constitution sprung.

    So it matters very much how deserving the poor are, because the conservative answer is what they deserve is what they get.


  13. Anonymous12:24 AM

    Noah, I agree 100% with you.
    I live in Indonesia, I can imagine what happens if you try implement a morality-based policy here :
    1. First of all, the government and the parliament will have endless meetings discussing the proper criteria of "undeserved". They will hire consultants, conduct case studies, do benchmarking, etc. All of those will only waste our limited money and resources and make them prone to corruption;
    2. If they ever come up with their agreed version of "undeserved" criteria, it will take an impossible effort to evaluate which poor are deserved and which are un-deserved. Money & corruption will play a big role in evaluation and selection.
    3. Policy will be implemented based on no.2
    4. There will be public outcry afterward. Some investigations may follow and one or two officials may go to jail
    5. End of story. The poor will stay poor.

  14. How poor do the working poor deserve to be? That is the question.

    Trade with China was SUPPOSED to make every worker better off than before. And it could have if we had taxed income from capital to subsidize wages. (HO theory and Pareto efficiency)

    The fact that we didn't means most American workers, almost all of them, would be better off if we re-imposed tariffs.

    (A similar argument can be made to reduce the flow of low-skilled immigration.)

    We are where we are because of policy decisions made in Washington DC which were against the interests of the American people. We deserve better than that.

  15. Anonymous10:02 AM

    "But as I see it, whether people are poor because of their own actions doesn't really help us answer either of the two questions I posed above."

    No, it doesn't answer your questions. Instead, arguing that someone's own action led to their poverty merely begs your question. The answer that someone has caused his own poverty implies that we don't mind if they are poor, without saying so outright.

    The proper response, the one you offer here, is to repeat the question.

    So, a little thought experiment that I think clarifies the issue. Assuming we all share very similar genetic endowments, and that there is enough mixing over the generations than any of Tyler's "assume rich people are virtuous" argument can be ignored, let's look down the road a few generations. If there is the possibility of a society in which any burden from one's social "endowment" can be reduced, so that we the lowest performing members of society can make a substantially larger contribution, do we want to try to make it so? Some will still do better, in terms of contribution and reward, but not because we have a culture in which some folk have very little chance to thrive.

  16. @Luke - Trade with China does make poor people better off than before, in the form of being better able to afford goods that are cheaper. It doesn't address poverty, but I think it's hard to argue that standards of living are not marginally higher for the poor with cheaper goods than without them.

  17. Anonymous11:01 AM


    having learned so much from your posts over the past few months, I'm glad that I have, for once, something to contribute.

    You start from the premiss that normative statements do not admit of empirical verification or falsification, and thus replace your normative statement with something that sounds like a statement of fact: the impact of poverty -- through criminality -- on self-interest, your own and I assume that of society as a whole.

    A typical move, I would say, and a knee-jerk reaction for an economist.

    Are you sure you want to go that route? I mean the route of a factual exploration of the linkages between poverty, criminality, and welfare? What if that type of technical analysis were to reveal that the best way to eliminate the poor people's annoying tendency to mug decent people like you were to throw them all in jail, or kill a few of them so that the others would learn, or even eliminate them all? Would you give up on your normative position?

    It is true that normative statements cannot be corroborated empirically in the same way in which 'the snow is white' can, but the theory of knowledge has come up with other ways of establishing the validity of normative statements. For example, a normative statement is valid if, under idealized conditions (essentially no power and money differences), it can be the object of consensus, that is, if it could be endorsed by all people affected. The proposition that all poor people should be jailed is unlikely to receive such endorsement. Other normative statements might.

    The point is, you can't get rid of normativity with a stroke of pen, as you did in this post.


  18. Anonymous12:47 PM

    I've recently been working with (hiring) a lot of the type of people who are willing to commute 15-20 miles for a $10/hour part time job. They seem to be living on the edge of disaster all the time. Many of them are over the edge and are being hounded by creditors, trying to deal with medical problems without insurance, raising large families in trailers, etc.

    Here's my observation: None of them would be in the situation they are in without some poor decisions. (They almost all smoke for example.)

    So what?

    I went to school with some of these people and their relatives many years ago and I have been trying to remember if things were always so bad for them and I just didn't notice. I think there is a major difference in the modern world -- these folks are now preyed upon by credit companies, debt collectors, mortgage brokers, payday lenders, "rent to own" deals, etc. They didn't have to fall for the "easy terms" but they did, and now they are in debt bondage with no way out.

  19. @Nicola:

    Good thoughts. Of course, what we want as a society is very complex (and not always well-defined, since we have disagreements). So if the "cure" for poverty is worse than the "disease," we might indeed want to hold off on taking action.

    My point about the "is-ought" problem was that Bryan Caplan's personal opinion tells us nothing about the solution to poverty.

  20. Love this post, makes all the right points.

    How about brainstorming a solution?

    Welfare Employment System:

  21. Steve M.6:21 PM

    Philosophy graduate student here, so I wanted to point out (pedantically!) that many people in philosophy and in ethics think there are prescriptive or normative facts that transcend opinion (Cf survey of large number of professional philosophers - Not too many people accept Hume's view anymore on one interpretation (no moral facts); on another many people accept it (can't infer moral truths from only empirical premises) but don't think it means normative facts are "just" opinions.

    It's clear that even if some people don't think of problems like poverty in moral terms, a huge load of voters do (Cf. Gilens' "Why Americans Hate Welfare"), so it seems like it's worth discussing.

    Cowen is right to qualify caring about desert to only be reasonable sometimes - we care about desert when it comes to punishment, say, or for determining who gets scarce resources if they are not available to all.

    All this being said, I agree that the conservative rhetoric about the "laziness" of the poor is a scourge on public policy. One way to point this out is to look at how we treat children - they ought to get tons of distributed benefits (guaranteed public education), though they haven't done anything to "deserve" them. (I suppose some might say they "deserve" them in virtue of some property relating to future prospects or perhaps everyone comes with default positive desert status that some people lose by being lazy. Those don't seem very promising routes to take, for obvious reasons.) Some of the rationale for distributing benefits to children seems to me apply equally well to eligible adults, and it is separate from the question of moral desert.

    At the end of the day, moral desert is not the only relevant moral issue relating to poverty, as you point out, and as I suppose Cowen has in mind.

  22. Here I make the point that if the poor disproportionately suffer from hyperbolic discounting (which I believe is a robust result), then the standard-line "let them suffer" can't work* because it fails to align incentives in a time-consistent manner.

    I have long (but not always) held that if you derive from first moral principles that "helping" the poor is a first-order concern; then asking about desert is needlessly complicating things.

    *"Work" is always such a bad word to use...however, in this instance, I use it to mean providing enough and the type of support that would allow for a virtuous cycle of inter-generational wealth building.

    P.S. While my basic prognosis is similar to yours, you'll probably find that my predilections lead me to different policy results.

  23. @Niklas:

    I agree with you (I think).

    @Steve M.:

    many people in philosophy and in ethics think there are prescriptive or normative facts that transcend opinion...many people accept it (can't infer moral truths from only empirical premises) but don't think it means normative facts are "just" opinions.

    So according to these folks, what is a "normative fact"? Sounds like a silly term to me, but I'm open to being convinced.

    As for what philosophers think, I think everyone is a philosopher, so the survey sample is biased... ;)

  24. Piling on the the matter of "normative facts:" I would say semantically that a norm are a preference phrased as an opinion, and Nicola's specific example of consensus normativity is simply a "widely-shared preference." "I want/like" versus "I think" or "I believe," except as an epiphenomenon of the want. I am not sure you would ever get to "a universally-shared preference" but even then it wouldn't really affect the basic argument.

    On the other side, your list of reasons why it might be a matter of self-interest to help the poor was hardy exhaustive, and even apart from the usual insurance argument (poor could happen to you) you could add, "permits middle class individuals to take more long shot chances with lower consequences;" "strengthens the bargaining position of middle class groups by reducing the penalty for defeat by those higher in the chain;" and much else.

  25. Piling on the the matter of "normative facts:" I would say semantically that a norm are a preference phrased as an opinion, and Nicola's specific example of consensus normativity is simply a "widely-shared preference."

    Ah...97 out of 100 college hipsters agree, Radiohead was the best band of the 2000s...NORMATIVE FACT!

  26. Ewww...Radiohead? Really? No, I guess not - not at 97%.

    Of course there can be facts about preferences, and preferences about facts. Comments sections often feature the latter. Posts likewise.

  27. Anonymous2:14 AM


    Interesting remark. Personally I disagree that my previous example simply refers to a 'widely-shared preference' and would argue that the consensus draws normative validity from the procedural conditions in which it is obtained.

    My point to Noah was that it seemed a wrong move to replace a normative statement with empirical facts and causal relations, and your suggestion to lengthen the list of the above hardly solves the problem, I think.


  28. Nicola -

    But again, what would "normative validity" mean other than "shared preference" or "socially accepted trope" or something like that? I know where Rorty would take it, but so what? I'd also argue that in the particular case the idea of reaching a values consensus on the question of what "ought" to be done to/for the poor would seem possible only to someone who talks only to people like herself. Imagine an Ayn Rand - John Rawls attempt to reach consensus on the issue (Three Stooges style, if you share that non-consensus taste) and then consider that many many more people consider themselves Randites. Of course you could argue that normative validity can only be achieved within "discourse communities." But then how do the communities resolve that? The intersection of Objectivists and Second Amendment fans is not the empty set.

  29. zrichellez3:20 PM

    I am going to go ahead and assume you are talking about the good ol US of A and not rural Kenya or the slums of Bangalore.
    I don't believe that a percentage of the population MUST be poor. This not to say that income distributions cannot widely vary.
    I think Noahland would be better served instead of starting thinking about the poor ( "them" ) think about "us". What does your society want to look like.

    Begin by committing to a society where education opportunities are open to all. This would be a national mandate for quality public education beginning at the pre school level and continuing through university. No matter what your zip code happens to be. The current distribution of educational opportunities and access is not equitable. Good public schools are in better areas. Period.
    Universal Healthcare. No explanation needed.
    Progressive taxation to pay for these programs.
    With health and education, opportunity will follow for everyone. Some may run further and faster and that is fine.
    And if people, with particular attention to the elderly and children, are falling through the cracks or living in the shadows, social agencies are needed to guide retraining, counseling, provide unemployment insurance for transitional income disruptions, and welfare for emergencies but not for a permanent membership roles.
    The luck of circumstance and geography of birth as a large determining factor of success should be mitigated. Its not about them. Its about us.

  30. 'When I witness the urban blight, violence, drug abuse, and other social ills that poverty may be causing, as a non-poor person I have an interest in preventing these social ills from affecting me, regardless of whether the ills are "deserved."'

    This is really an excellent point.

    I personally experience revulsion when the "deserving poor" argument is raised.

    I tend to look at poverty in terms of opportunity cost: if a society is wealthy enough to feed, clothe and educate all of its people, then the opportunity cost of not doing so is all the work, creativity, and productivity, etc that those people would have otherwise created.

  31. Noah, interesting post, I've replied on WCI, Morals? Can't afford them

  32. Steve M.4:10 PM

    No question that professionally paid philosophers are a strange tribe!

    In any case, I hope the problem isn't about the meaning of the term 'normative' because we can just make up a term (let's say 'N-facts') that refer to facts about what one ought to do, and stipulate that these facts, if they are to be distinctive, cannot be reduced to received opinion about what one ought to do.

    We all can recognize that one ought not to believe the sun revolves around the earth. Even when the majority opinion was that the sun revolves around the earth, the fact of the matter was that it didn't - everyone was wrong to believe this. (This is a separate question from whether they were blameworthy for believing it.) Similarly, one might argue that there is an N-fact about slavery (one oughtn't own slaves or promote the practice) and this was true even in Ancient Egypt or Greece when it was a commonly accepted practice.

    Now, one might argue that we can go out and look and discover that the sun doesn't revolve around the earth, but we can't do the same with slavery's wrongness. This is certainly a powerful challenge to the existence of N-facts (one that I personally think can be overcome, but that is a whole separate ball of wax), but at the very least, some argument must be provided for showing N-facts don't exist. It oughtn't be assumed off the bat, and the concept of N-facts isn't obviously incoherent.

    One might think that there are no N-facts about how deserving the poor are, but I don't think it is obviously mistaken, and I think many people, even non-professionally-paid-philosophers think there is an N-fact about the matter, as they do when it comes to, say, deserved punishments for a crime.

  33. Anonymous10:43 AM

    "In its general influence on educated public opinion, orthodox [economics] teaching has not been merely feeble and confused but positively pernicious. It gives support to the view that expenditure by a government that is beneficial to the inhabitants of its territory is 'socialism' and must be prevented at all costs. This reconciles an otherwise more or less sane and benevolent public opinion to the arms race which seems to be dragging us all to destruction. ...

    It seems to me that the whole complex of theories and models ... is in need of a thorough spring cleaning."

    Joan Robinson

  34. Anonymous10:31 PM

    Can someone give me their oppinion about "Are the poor poor because of their bad descitions?" Please answer fast