"How Deserving Are the Poor?": My Opening Statement
By Bryan Caplan
Thanks to everyone who attended last night’s debate, and especially to Karl Smith for being such a good sport. In the near future, I’ll put up a webpage of debate resources, including full video. For now, here’s my opening statement and PowerPoints.
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. The deserving 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.
The same logic applies to everyone who used to be a healthy adult in the First World. Were there reasonable steps you could have taken earlier to avoid poverty? Sure. The elderly could have saved more. The sick could have bought insurance. It’s tempting to say, “When they were young and healthy, they didn’t have the money!” But didn’t they have the money for cable t.v. and beer?
Some people think it’s pointless to talk about desert. I disagree. If you’re a libertarian who opposes any government spending on the poor no matter what, you should still consider desert when you give to charity. Starving Haitian children really do deserve your help more than almost any American. If you have a more expansive view of the proper role of government, you should still see a big difference between forcing taxpayers to help starving kids, and forcing taxpayers to help irresponsible adults. If you’ve ever told a frustrating friend or relative, “It’s your mess, you clean it up,” you should see the injustice in forcing taxpayers to support undeserving people they don’t even know.
The most important lesson, though, is that First World governments’ priorities are upside-down. The Third World contains hundreds of millions of deserving poor: desperate people who would love to work as a janitor for $25,000 a year. If we owe charity to anyone, we owe it to people who struggle to earn a dollar a day. But when First World governments hand out charity, the deserving poor in the Third World get next to nothing. Foreign aid’s about 1% of the budget. Indeed, First World governments actively prevent the world’s deserving poor from helping themselves: They make it illegal for them to move to the First World and accept a job from a willing employer. Even if we owe charity to no one, the least we can do is stop kicking the world’s deserving poor while they’re down.