While vacationing in Italy, I kept thinking about philosopher Matt Zwolinski’s thoughts on the deserving and undeserving poor:

[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 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.

These standards are preliminary, and no doubt they could be improved.  But they’re good starting points.  And 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.