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“How Deserving Are the Poor?”

3rd March 2013

Economist Bryan Caplan applies some common sense to an age-old question.

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.

This is in marked contrast to the politically fashionable position that no ‘poor’ person is ever undeserving, and that includes some people that you might not think are actually, you know, poor.

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