Noah Smith argues that the distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor is "pointless":
Who cares how "deserving" the poor are?, Noahpinion: Bryan Caplan is apparently about to debate Karl Smith on the question of "How deserving are the poor?" I want to get my two cents in ahead of this debate, by asking the counter-question: "Who cares?"
The question of "How deserving are the poor" is a matter of opinion. There is no right answer, because to say someone "deserves" something is a prescriptive statement, and you can't prove those with facts. Also, it is a somewhat pointless question, because no matter what answer you decide you like, it doesn't really imply any particular policy prescription. In practice, people who say "The poor deserve to be poor" are usually just trying to push the idea that we shouldn't try to do anything about poverty other than scolding the poor for their own mistakes (I'll come back to this idea in a bit). But this doesn't really follow.
As I see it, there are two important questions about poverty from a policy perspective:
1. Do we want to make poor people less poor?
2. If we do want to do that, how do we accomplish it?
Bryan Caplan's answer ... to the question of "How deserving are the poor" is that if people are poor mainly as a result of their own actions, then they deserve to be poor. But as I see it, whether people are poor because of their own actions doesn't really help us answer either of the two questions I posed above.
Regarding the first of my questions, "Do we want to make poor people less poor", it may be that your sense of morality tells you that if someone is in a condition as a direct result of their own actions, it would be wrong to try to remove that person from that condition. Fine, good for you and your sense of morality! But for my part, I simply don't care. If I am getting mugged by a poor person, I quite frankly do not give a rodent's gluteal region whether that person is poor because he made bad life choices or because the circumstances of his birth made his poverty inevitable; I want him to stop mugging me, and if making him less poor will make him stop mugging me, then maybe this would be a good thing to do, regardless of whether he "deserves" it. When I witness the urban blight, violence, drug abuse, and other social ills that poverty may be causing, as a non-poor person I have an interest in preventing these social ills from affecting me, regardless of whether the ills are "deserved."
Also, whether people are poor because of their own actions doesn't really tell us how to get them out of poverty. Scolding and finger-wagging does not work. Just because a person's actions got him into a situation doesn't mean that his actions can get him out of it. And even if poor people could raise themselves up out of poverty at any time, scolding and finger-wagging is not likely to induce them to suddenly do so. The conservative solution to poverty - make it really, really unpleasant to be poor, and then hope people will do the smart thing and avoid it - has failed and failed and failed again.
So from my point of view, asking whether or not poor people "deserve" their poverty is asking the wrong question.
That said, I think the Caplan definition of "deserve" is not as "uncontroversial" a moral premise as Caplan declares. The reason is that it is a partial-equilibrium definition, not a general-equilibrium one. If we live in a society in which X percent of the populace must be poor, then no matter what set of actions is taken by the population, some people will wind up in poverty. To see this, imagine that we lived in a society in which the hardest-working 50% of people get to be spectacularly rich, and the other 50% are forced to live in squalid poverty. In this society, if everyone raises their effort by 1000%, the number of people in poverty stays exactly the same. I doubt that most people would say that the lower half of the population "deserved" to stay in poverty after raising their effort by 1000%! But that is exactly what Caplan's definition implies. Also, note that in such a world, whether you "deserve" to be poor depends critically on the actions of other people (since the degree of effort required for a person to raise himself out of poverty depends on how much effort others are expending)...thus, Caplan's definition doesn't really seem to capture the notion of individual responsibility.
But anyway, that is a bit beside the point, because in my opinion the whole question is a bit of a pointless one.
Shouldn't those who complain about the undeserving poor also worry about the undeserving rich?