The Journal of Contemporary Legal Issues


This Essay explores how the U.S. tax system—the primary mechanism for distributing antipoverty cash benefits—is poorly suited to evaluating recipients’ deservingness. In doing so, it defines and formalizes the concept of inequality of deservingness, which is dyadic in nature. The first form of such inequality is that of “true deservingness.” True deservingness is somewhat abstract, arising from the distributive justice frameworks that underlie antipoverty program design in the United States. In Part II, the Essay briefly describes the major federal U.S. antipoverty programs, which mostly target support to families with children, people with disabilities, and workers. Working backwards, I then deduce various distributive justice norms that serve as organizing principles for U.S. antipoverty policy. These norms rest on notions of faultlessness, reciprocity, and work effort. The Essay does not defend these norms, but merely identifies them. Inequality of true deservingness refers to the fact that some people are considered deserving of support under these various norms, while others are not.

The second form of inequality of deservingness that this Essay considers is that of deservingness as determined by the public benefit system, which I call “deemed deservingness.” Focusing on tax-administered benefits, Part III starts by describing the information that a Form 1040 Individual Income Tax Return gathers about households. This information is necessarily limited; the tax return must be as simple as possible to ease filing for most taxpayers. For instance, while a taxpayer can show whether they are working—which is required to receive the EITC—those who are not working cannot explain why they are not working. Some individuals will thus be deemed deserving or undeserving without being able to provide full context for their actions. As Part III explains, true deservingness and deemed deservingness will not always align.

To provide greater texture to this discussion, I describe several taxpayers’ stories based on my former legal aid clients who were excluded from cash antipoverty support. These stories are anonymized, slightly altered amalgams of several clients I represented while directing the low-income taxpayer clinic at Bet Tzedek Legal Service in Los Angeles.

Inequality of deservingness is not inherently problematic. Antipoverty programs often draw reasonable boundaries in order to incentivize certain behaviors, limit costs, and encourage public support. It is the incongruity of true deservingness and deemed deservingness that leads to negative outcomes, including unprincipled exclusion of “deserving” individuals, misaligned behavioral incentives, and reduced public support for antipoverty programs.

The Essay ends by briefly considering whether reform is necessary and discussing several alternative antipoverty program designs. I conclude that the tax system is ill-equipped to provide inclusive benefits to all people who fit deservingness norms. Policymakers should therefore expand non-tax antipoverty programs to ensure that diverse programs exist to cover the complex scenarios under which households might need support. In addition to federal non-tax programs, I explore several local program models capable of addressing highly individualized needs.

The Essay proceeds as follows. Part II describes the major federal antipoverty programs in the United States and deduces the deservingness norms that underlie their eligibility boundaries. It focuses on antipoverty programs administered through the tax system, as these are the largest means-tested cash transfer programs in the United States. Part III describes who is deemed deserving under the tax system and explores how this deemed deservingness fails to align perfectly with the deservingness norms described in Part II. Part IV finishes by discussing the possible negative consequences of such misalignment and considering several policy responses.





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Larry Alexander & Steven D. Smith

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