Matt Zwolinski has a recent article in the Washington Post wherein he asserts that it’s insulting to even suggest that poverty is often the result of personal failings. He starts by noting that many Americans have a problem with the idea of the government taking money form them to hand to others with no strings attached:
Too often in the United States, welfare comes with strings attached. Yes, Americans are willing to help the poor; but they aren’t quite willing to trust them. After all, a lot of Americans still believe that people fall into poverty because there’s something wrong with them. Poverty is the material reflection of an internal moral failure.
And so, many of us believe that whatever aid we give to the poor should not be a “handout.” It must be conditioned on the poor correcting the personal failings that got them into poverty in the first place. We’ll help you take care of your children, but only if you get a job. We’ll help you buy food, but only with food stamps that we know you can’t spend on alcohol or tobacco.
So now one would naturally expect that Zwolinski will explain why this thinking is wrong, why it’s simply not the case that moral failings contribute to poverty, and thus no justification for thinking aid should be rendered conditionally. No such argument is made in the article.
Is there any reason to think that moral failings contribute substantially to poverty? Bryan Caplan makes a persuasive case that they do.
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. Thedeserving 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.
Caplan further points out that even if you have a more expansive view of the proper role of government, than libertarians do, “…you should still see a big difference between forcing taxpayers to help starving kids, and forcing taxpayers to help irresponsible adults.”
Zwolinski has debated these points with Caplan on the web, offering:
[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 Caplan points out it’s really not all that difficult to make such distinctions.
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.
And Caplan explains why this matters:
…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.
Zwolinski wants your money to be handed to other individuals. Are they deserving or your help? He simply characterizes the very question as insulting:
Paternalism isn’t just ineffective; it’s insulting. It presumes that the poor are incapable of managing their own lives. And it requires a great deal of invasive and degrading snooping on the government’s part to ensure that the poor are living up to the demands we’ve placed on them. Cash transfers, in contrast, give recipients the resources and responsibility to take charge of their own lives.
Here he seems to be saying that handing individuals unearned cash makes them behave more responsibly, but I see little reason to assume this is so. Or perhaps he means that they’ll have to take responsibility for their own lives because there will be noting more forthcoming from the public trough? Well 1) then simply removing the trough would make them take responsibility, and 2) it’s hard to credit the idea that proponents wouldn’t push for ever more benefits when poverty persisted in many families due to poor decisions. Suppose a family of five is given a BIG of $30,000 per year, which would put them just above the poverty level. To minimize paternalism they are handed a check for the full $30K on January 1st. Further suppose that by the 4th of July some significant number of families have little or none of their BIG cash remaining, due to decisions that didn’t work out well, and so face 6 months well below the poverty line. So, now what? I don’t believe that the BIG proponents aren’t coming back for another bite at the apple. I don’t believe the offer to simply *replace* the current welfare system is credible.
Reaching the end of Zwolinski’s article we find, oddly enough, that he isn’t really promoting a BIG any more because even he sees that it probably isn’t viable. Instead he says the government should just move toward such a system by turning existing welfare benefits into cash grants. Now would be an awkward time to mention that such steps fail to produce the supposed crucial benefit of a BIG – eliminating the perverse disincentive to work that the existing welfare programs create – and thus converting such programs to cash benefits really shouldn’t count as moving toward a BIG. In any case, he doesn’t mention that.
So the whole thrust of his argument in this article is just that all inconveniences currently entailed in receiving public assistance should be removed because it’s simply insulting to hold that existing poverty in the US could be significantly due to poor choices.
It seems clear to me that Caplan is correct, that most American adults can avoid poverty by simply making reasonable choices, and that those who fail to do so should be at the bottom of the list for even private charity. I oppose state welfare, but even if you believe it’s necessary you should still see how criminally wasteful (where public funds are concerned) it is to fail to discriminate between who is likely to use such money wisely and who is not.
Caplan summarizes his argument:
1. Claims about desert and poverty are meaningful. Asking, “Does he deserve to be poor?” can be rude, but that doesn’t mean the answer is “No.”
2. A person deserves his problem if there are reasonable steps the he could have taken to avoid the problem. Poverty is a problem, so a person deserves his poverty if there are reasonable steps he could have taken to avoid his poverty.
3. Common sense can usually resolve whether reasonable steps to avoid poverty were available to a particular person. A good rule of thumb: If you wouldn’t accept an excuse from a friend, you shouldn’t accept it from anyone.
4. The fact that a person deserves his poverty does not imply that it is morally wrong to help him.
5. However, the fact that a person deserves his poverty is (a) a strong moral reason to give him low priority when weighing how to allocate help, and (b) a strong moral reason not to force a stranger to help him.
6. The fact that a person does not deserve his poverty does not imply that it is morally wrong not to help him.
7. However, the fact that a person does not deserve his poverty is (a) a strong moral reason to give him high priority when weighing how to allocate help, (b) an extra moral reason for individuals morally responsible for his poverty to cease and remedy their wrongful behavior, (c) a moral reason to force these morally responsible individuals to cease and remedy their wrongful behavior, and (d) a plausible though not totally convincing moral reason to force strangers to help the deserving person if the benefits heavily outweigh the costs.
And further, I’d say the fact that welfare recipients have to jump through some inconvenient and unpleasant hoops to receive money that has been coercively extracted from others is generally a feature, not a bug. It’s an incentive to make better decisions.
Zwolinski’s argument here is a soft head/soft heart argument here because it’s a fundamentally emotional appeal for bad policy. Such arguments don’t deserve to succede.