I like a great deal of Bryan Caplan’s work, and what I like I like a great deal, but it seems to me he makes a significant inferential error in this recent EconLog post. Caplan notes that “71% of poor families with children are headed by single parents. About 80% of all long-term poverty occurs in single-parent homes. Married high school dropouts have lower poverty rates than single parents with one or two years of college.” He infers from these statistics that there are very few “deserving poor”:
If you combine Rector’s evidence with common-sense moral beliefs about the deserving poor, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that few “poor” Americans qualify. The moral admonition to “help the deserving poor” asks us come to the aid of people who are (a) genuinely destitute, even though (b) they took reasonable measures to avoid destitution. Rector shows that few Americans qualify on either count.
How many of those poor, single-parent families are so because the marriage broke up? How many of those families are so because the father was incarcerated? Fewer than half of children currently in single-parent households were born outside wedlock. You can blame mothers in many of these cases for a poor choice of partner, but living in poverty with your children is a hell of a sentence for that kind of mistake. Some of these households could well be considered “deserving poor.” And yes, their material circumstances are usually not dire, but dignity has to do with a lot more than material circumstances. If you have a refrigerator and a TV but can’t afford to go back to school and get an education to improve your lot in life, are you really well off?
Fatherlessness is important for explaining poverty, but that doesn’t mean fatherless families don’t deserve help.
[Note: “1%” corrected to “71%” above. Copy and paste error – apologies!]