Deserving Poor

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!]

5 thoughts on “Deserving Poor

  1. In the past there were charities,religions,foster homes,orphanages,associations and the family who would step in to help the poor. At most the counties and states would provide a modicum of help and assistance. Nobody starved and most of the children of the poor grew up to become productive,responsible citizens. Today,in America,things are different. If a women makes a “mistake” the mistake is not corrected. Instead the women is rewarded. In fact the more “mistakes” the higher the reward. The average single mother on “public assistance” with 3 offspring receives about 80K worth of benefits. Welfare,ADC,Food ETB cards,rent assistance,fuel assistance,Medicaid,free education,up to and including college, for her offspring plus a myriad of other benefits that she may game out of the system. In today’s world sometimes it pays to be poor. Where is the responsibility? Whats more important is: Where’s the daddy? The question to ask is what happens after the system bankrupts itself? What happens when the money is worthless? What will these 2nd and 3rd or even 4th generation of “dependency class” women do when the system collapses? The title of the above article is the “deserving poor.” Deserving? How about the people who are forced to pay for the welfare system? What about their property rights? Aren’t the fruits of their labors their property? Or do the fruits of their labor belong to the state? Do we live in a free republic or a mobocracy democracy where the children don’t belong to the individual citizens but are the property of the state? Am I to be penalized for being responsible? If I want to help the “deserving poor” voluntarily that’s fine. But to have a policy where someone deserves a piece of the fruits of my labor is morally wrong. It either or. Either freedom or free handouts,no compromises. No 3rd way.

    1. My post isn’t really about government benefits, but about whether a significant number of poor families in the U.S. are worthy of our voluntary efforts to help.

  2. It was also unclear to me your implied source of support for your expanded definition of ‘ deserving poor’.

    1. Even many poor, single-parent households are that way not because of terribly stupid, vicious decisions of that parent, but because of bad luck.

  3. On the deserving, nondeserving issue – it used to be that charity of the type described in comment one was more personal – you probably knew or knew someone who knew the person who needed help. In today’s world of impersonal charity usually delivered anonymously through large nonprofit organizations whose contact with the recipients is probably transient, it is much harder to determine who really needs help and whether their circumstances are due to poor judgment or bad luck.

    And once people tired of being forced through taxes to pay for assistance to others, then charity contributions would probably decline as well. So the truly needy, and they do exist, will not get anything along with the pikers.

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