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Direct investment for homelessness?
February 18, 2011 5:11 AM   Subscribe

Homelessness: Cutting out the middle men (Economist) "The most efficient way to spend money on the homeless might be to give it to them".

This is hardly revolutionary; made popular by Malcolm Gladwell's piece titled Million-Dollar Murray, research confirms that homelessness is a social problem that follows a power-law distribution rather than a normal distribution. Directly addressing society's worse-off on a personal level rather than at a policy level is cheaper and more effective, as the British charity group Broadway claim.

However, how does this approach to homelessness fit into the overall picture of philosophy of human rights? (section 3.4). From that article's section: having shelter and food is indisputably important, but are they human rights or societal goals? In order to study the effects of programs that ameliorate homelessness, are best-practice randomized studies ethical?
posted by asymptotic (64 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
Why stop with the homeless?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basic_income_guarantee
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guaranteed_minimum_income
http://www.basicincome.org/bien/
http://www.usbig.net/index.php
http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=54503
posted by zeek321 at 5:37 AM on February 18, 2011 [11 favorites]


It seems unnecessary to debate human rights, since the clear suggestion is that effective help is cost-efficient for the authorities in purely practical and utilitarian terms: even if it isn't a right, it's still eminently worthwhile in almost any terms.

While I'm convinced by your first link, you have to wonder about the perverse incentives if it were generalised. If it were known that anyone sleeping rough in the City could get a caravan or other stuff averaging over £700 bought for them, I'd probably be down there tonight myself.
posted by Segundus at 5:39 AM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yes, because we just have piles and piles of money to hand away to everyone. (Sorry, I'm letting my political side really shine this morning)

This would just make the problem we have with unemployment even worse- if people don't have to make their money, they never, ever will. 700 dollars for a month, versus making 1000 in a month doing some sort of work? They'll never bother to improve anything.
posted by Askiba at 5:46 AM on February 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


(And yeah, I know we would already be giving most of this money in the current program anyway. But when you just start handing people money without any interference, it really can't wendell.)
posted by Askiba at 5:48 AM on February 18, 2011


Yes, because we just have piles and piles of money to hand away to everyone

If only there were someone we could stop handing money to. Someone who didn't need it, say.

if people don't have to make their money, they never, ever will.

Piffle.
posted by DU at 5:50 AM on February 18, 2011 [9 favorites]


@Segundus: If it were known that anyone sleeping rough in the City could get a caravan or other stuff averaging over £700 bought for them, I'd probably be down there tonight myself.

@Askiba: (And yeah, I know we would already be giving most of this money in the current program anyway. But when you just start handing people money without any interference, it really can't wendell.)

You missed the part of the FPP where I mentioned that this is problem distributed with respect to a power-law, rather than a normal distribution. We aren't discussing a mass of homelessness, with some extreme cases, but a scenario where homelessness is primarily a set of extreme cases. You would not count as an extreme case! You could sleep in the City all you want, but there are people there were serious, fundamental substance abuse and mental problems who you could never "compete" with.

However, in general the moral hazard is hard to ignore. I almost get the feeling that social welfare problems have nothing to do with actually remedying social problems, and are more oriented towards being political stances to make people feel better about themselves. Surely the moral hazard is the bearable cost of addressing homelessness?
posted by asymptotic at 5:52 AM on February 18, 2011


there were serious = there with
posted by asymptotic at 5:53 AM on February 18, 2011


@Segundus: It seems unnecessary to debate human rights, since the clear suggestion is that effective help is cost-efficient for the authorities in purely practical and utilitarian terms: even if it isn't a right, it's still eminently worthwhile in almost any terms.

I've gotten into discussions with people who argue that social welfare, in and of itself, is immoral and an illegal tax on the productive. I've read enough Ayn Rand threads on the Blue to realise that others who believe in that claptrap lurk around here as well. This has everything to do with human rights, as some people feel that any cost towards addressing social problems is one cent too much.
posted by asymptotic at 5:56 AM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


This would just make the problem we have with unemployment even worse- if people don't have to make their money, they never, ever will. 700 dollars for a month, versus making 1000 in a month doing some sort of work? They'll never bother to improve anything.

I agree, but I think the concept goes deeper than this, although I've seen it practiced in the way you describe. If the qualifying homeless are given a home, food stamps, bus passes, "preventive" medicine, free education and school lunches, and no cash at all, then jobs would be easier for them to get and maintain, and the drug market would not see an increased demand through easy cash stipends. The point would be to assist their children, manage their reproduction, addiction, and prevent pregnancy and costly disease at the same time (rather than manage their homelessness). It might be the case for most that they require simple remediation of their inability to self-manage at a basic social baseline.
posted by Brian B. at 6:01 AM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


The problem with this that people actually hate the poor. They feel like they are poor due to their own failures and deserve to be poor. So, even if it's economically efficient, they'll be opposed to it.

There was a suggestion in Seattle or somewhere to take the most costly drunk homeless people, those who used up the most emergency services, and just put them somewhere so they wouldn't get sick or injured as much and save money. People were LIVID at the idea, despite the fact that they would actually save money by doing it.

People (lots of people, anyway) hate the idea of poor people and homeless people enjoying themselves. They think the poor should spend all their time begging for food and only getting the bare necessities of life. With a plan like this, they might spend their money on alcohol or drugs or McDonnald's food or something.
posted by delmoi at 6:02 AM on February 18, 2011 [34 favorites]


If only there were someone we could stop handing money to. Someone who didn't need it, say.

Actually, yeah, on second thought. I can kinda grant you that one. This time! But still....

You would not count as an extreme case!

The very fact that there would be a competition between the ""normal"" homeless and the extreme cases sounds like it would be even worse then what I suggested.
posted by Askiba at 6:07 AM on February 18, 2011


@Askiba: The very fact that there would be a competition between the ""normal"" homeless and the extreme cases sounds like it would be even worse then what I suggested.

Normal is extreme. My fault, I should have provided a link that describes what a power-law is.
posted by asymptotic at 6:09 AM on February 18, 2011


Thank you sir may I have another. Hm.. I must review my notes further before returning.
posted by Askiba at 6:13 AM on February 18, 2011


Look at the situation in WI. Large swaths of people are outraged that school teachers make a middle class wage. Trying to enact something like this would cause actual armed revolt.
posted by dirigibleman at 6:14 AM on February 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


The point would be to assist their children, manage their reproduction, addiction, and prevent pregnancy and costly disease at the same time (rather than manage their homelessness). It might be the case for most that they require simple remediation of their inability to self-manage at a basic social baseline.

Perhaps, but this is not what The Economist article seems to be talking about. Giving money directly to homeless people takes those who wish to manage other people's lives for them out of the loop.

I think the basic human right here is the right to not to have some (otherwise unemployed) sociology major "manage your reproduction" or remediate your addictions for you. The Economist's "just give 'em some coin" approach has the appeal that is not intended to "fix" the lives of people who may not want to have their lives fixed, only to offer them some marginal improvement.

I like it.
posted by three blind mice at 6:37 AM on February 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


700 dollars for a month, versus making 1000 in a month doing some sort of work? They'll never bother to improve anything.

This absurd conservative argument comes up any time social welfare programs are discussed. The idea seems to be that, given a certain amount of guaranteed income, people won't bother to work for more. Yet that flies in the face of what we know about human nature. People are greedy. They almost invariably want more and better, and in fact we often praise people who are able to reject the human compulsion to want and work for more (e.g. monks, the Amish).

It's funny, too, since this idea directly contradicts another common conservative argument, which is that the rich deserve their money since they worked so hard for it. So which is it? Do people work harder for more money or do they only scrape by with the bare minimum?

Usually this discrepancy is explained away by arguing that some people are hard workers and others are lazy. While that may or may not be true, it's definitely not true that it explains people's economic outcomes. Whether you end up as wealthy or poor has far more to do with your race, your parents' income, the schools you could attend, the language you speak, and a bunch of other factors that have nothing to do with the ability and inclination to work hard.
posted by jedicus at 6:42 AM on February 18, 2011 [33 favorites]


They'll never bother to improve anything

They? They are us. They are you but for the grace of fate.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 6:57 AM on February 18, 2011 [24 favorites]


Whether you end up as wealthy or poor has far more to do with your race, your parents' income, the schools you could attend, the language you speak, and a bunch of other factors that have nothing to do with the ability and inclination to work hard.

All those things are certainly factors. No dispute.

But shall we completely disregard people's agency? I've worked for a number of years with a poor family in northern Indiana. They've got like six-odd kids, not all of whom are at home, and who have been taken by CPS more than once. Mom refuses to work, dad is intermittently employed and done time for both drunk driving and burglary. Both have a history of drug use. But their siblings, who were raised in identical circumstances, are more-or-less keeping it together. Sure, they've got problems and they need better access to health care, but they aren't looking for and don't really need handouts.

How are we to account for this discrepancy if we are not permitted to consider a failure of virtue as a possibility? Again, yes, their circumstances and upbringing have pretty much categorically disqualified any of them from realistically aspiring to more than a lower middle class existence, but out of over a dozen siblings, counting both sides of the family, only this one is really in a bad way. My church has been working with them for years, but there's no real willingness on their part even to take the help we're offering if it's anything but cash money.

Can we not perhaps find some way of allowing for both personal and structural failings?
posted by valkyryn at 7:02 AM on February 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


But their siblings, who were raised in identical circumstances, are more-or-less keeping it together.

The family in question has six-odd kids? When did the mother first become pregnant? Was she married at the time? Was it intentional? You say they have a history of drug use and, apparently, alcohol abuse. When did that start? Perhaps when they were teenagers?

My guess is (and I welcome the actual facts) that they got started down a bad road due to a couple of teenaged mistakes: an unintended pregnancy that they kept and messing around with drugs and alcohol. Whereas I'll bet that didn't happen to their siblings.

If they were raised in a better-off environment, the pregnancy likely would have been avoided, either through not having sex, having protected sex, having an abortion, or giving up the child (it's a lot easier to put up a kid from a middle class family for adoption). The drug use, if it happened at all, would either have been a phase or would have been treated.

Did they make some mistakes? Yes. But the mistakes and the magnitude of their consequences had as much or more to do with their circumstances as it did their personal failings. Statistically, people who start in better circumstances are less likely to end up like that, even when they are lazy, feckless, or stupid.

And are there occasionally people who make bad decisions over and over despite all attempts to set them on the right path and giving them every available opportunity to do better? Sure. But those outliers shouldn't guide policymaking.
posted by jedicus at 7:15 AM on February 18, 2011 [5 favorites]


They almost invariably want more and better,

More and better what? The fallacy here is the belief that "everyone" is motivated by "more and better" when the fact of the matter is that plenty of "us" strive only for - and are completely satisfied by - "good enough."

Speaking for myself alone, my basic needs being met, all I want is more and better time with my children. Earning more money is nothing but an obstacle to this so I work as much as need to and no more. If someone were to hand me money for good enough, I would not be motivated to earn more. When what I earn (or receive) is not good enough, I become highly motivated to get off my lazy ass.

It thus seems to me that there is some truth for some people to the argument that giving someone 700 quid discourages them from getting a job and earning 1000 quid. If 700 provides me with "good enough" - and I am one of those people happy with good enough - what makes you think I would or should be motivated to earn more?
posted by three blind mice at 7:16 AM on February 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


I've been discussing a related idea with a friend for some time. It's no doubt better-explained and -advocated by smarter people than I, with economics degrees and everything. But if you gave everybody a place to sleep, basic health care, 3 hots, and let them watch TV all day, it'd probably be cheaper than the current system, which has to deal with the extracurricular activities of all the people who would be satisfied with, but can't get, that uninspiring lifestyle.

The upside is, by freeing people up to do whatever they want (even if what most of them want is to watch TV and drink) you'll get grass-roots artists, musicians and entrepreneurs. Think about it: if what you get "for free" is bland nutraloaf, night after night, it doesn't take much entrepreneurial spirit to hit on the idea of "we'll start making and bottling a seasoning sauce to sell to our neighbors!"

I guess you'd have to give everybody a little discretionary money too, and of course the existing purveyors of crap would Hoover most of it up by selling everybody the same cheap Chinese stuff they sell now, but my guess is it'd be overall economically efficient, with fewer people trapped in soul-sucking jobs that don't pay enough to cover the rent, where they get revenge by doing the worst possible job that's still consistent with not getting fired.
posted by spacewrench at 7:30 AM on February 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


From the article, the organization offered to purchase whatever their sample group of homeless persons wanted, so it wasn't exactly cash, and it sounded like a one-time thing. It also says that 11 out of 13 ended up off the streets. Given that a single event, like a medical problem or car breaking down is sometimes the proximate cause of homelessness, it doesn't seem that big a stretch to think that a one-time windfall might be enough for someone to escape homelessness.
posted by snofoam at 7:30 AM on February 18, 2011


I welcome the actual facts

The plural of "anecdote" is not "data," but here you go.

They got married in their late teens/early twenties. She got pregnant almost right away. And they just never really felt like using birth control, so, yeah.

Statistically, people who start in better circumstances are less likely to end up like that, even when they are lazy, feckless, or stupid.

Right, but I guess what I'm getting at is the fact that individual people do not, in fact, live in the aggregate. And I'm still going to resist your assertion that we can't permit a consideration of the agency of the poor to guide policymaking at all. You seem to be arguing that the poor aren't morally responsible for their actions. That would seem to de-humanize them in ways that bother me a lot. I'm all for finding ways of eliminating structural injustices, but I'm not willing to take the position that circumstances can render human choices morally irrelevant.

Look, I think the idea in the linked article makes a hell of a lot of sense. Similarly, sticking repeat offenders like this one in a hotel room for the evening costs a hell of a lot less than sticking them in jail, even overnight, and frees up other important resources for more socially important problems. But I'm not going to surrender the moral import of human agency so quickly, nor assign a huge section of the population to some kind of sub-moral plane just because I think they got a raw deal.
posted by valkyryn at 7:37 AM on February 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


The fallacy here is the belief that "everyone" is motivated by "more and better" when the fact of the matter is that plenty of "us" strive only for - and are completely satisfied by - "good enough."

Well what's "plenty of us?" I'd argue that that's a minority view, certainly within American society.

Speaking for myself alone, my basic needs being met, all I want is more and better time with my children.

How expensive are your basic needs, though? It's possible (indeed likely) that a guaranteed minimum income wouldn't actually meet them, so there'd still be an interest in working for more.

And what do you consider basic? A bare shelter and enough drinking water and staple food to survive? Or do you mean basic within the context of your society and socioeconomic peers? If your society took a significant leap ahead in terms of standard of living, are you so sure you wouldn't revise your definition of basic needs?

For example, 30 years ago no one would have considered an internet connection a basic need. Yet I'll bet that's part of your current definition.
posted by jedicus at 7:37 AM on February 18, 2011


This is closer to home than many of us might at first think. Don't we all have, within our own circle of friends and family, a ne'er-do-well cousin or uncle or friend-of-a-friend who mooches off of relatives and surfs from one couch to another? I can think of two examples in my immediate circle, of people who will go out of their way to avoid work and responsibility. Indeed, if they put the same effort into self-improvement that they currently do into creative loafing, they'd be out-earning all of us.

There are always reasons for homelessness, some of them quite devastating and intractable. But to say, as jedicus does above, that all people want to work to improve their lives, I think contradicts what I see in my own family:


This absurd conservative argument comes up any time social welfare programs are discussed. The idea seems to be that, given a certain amount of guaranteed income, people won't bother to work for more. Yet that flies in the face of what we know about human nature. People are greedy. They almost invariably want more and better, and in fact we often praise people who are able to reject the human compulsion to want and work for more (e.g. monks, the Amish).


I agree that people always want more. But not all of us are willing/able/ready/prepared to work for it.

I see a direct link with the "wet house" post from yesterday. Some people, if given just enough money to eat or drink, will stay there and never improve themselves. Hell, the slacker lifestyle is all about living on $700/month rather than working for $1000/month.

So what to do? Should we fund this kind of life, enabling these addictions in the hope that it will keep them off the street and out of the ERs? It's probably cheaper, and it's probably politically untenable. I don't know what the right decision is, I really don't.
posted by math at 7:42 AM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


You seem to be arguing that the poor aren't morally responsible for their actions.

No, I'm saying that they are often guided towards bad choices by their circumstances and the consequences of those bad choices are magnified by those same circumstances. Thus, a poor person is more likely to make certain mistake than a well-off person (and for reasons outside their control), and the results are worse for the poor person. My argument, then, is that we should level the playing field a bit by guiding the poor towards better decisions and (apropos to this discussion) ameliorating the exaggerated negative effects of bad decisions.

This is, to me, about notions of fairness and justice. The well-off can, if they fall on hard times, turn to a network of well-off friends and family. But they often did nothing to deserve that support network; it's just an accident of their birth. The poor should not be penalized for not having the good sense to be born well-off.

And I'm still going to resist your assertion that we can't permit a consideration of the agency of the poor to guide policymaking at all.

Let's postulate that some poor people deserve the consequences of their bad choices. I would argue that, to the extent such people exist, they are the minority. But furthermore, how can we accurately tell the deserving poor from the undeserving? Even if it could be done, it is likely far more efficient to simply treat all cases equally. The worst that happens is that a few people get an undeserved second chance, which doesn't sound too bad to me at all, and in fact seems like the sort of thing that a lot of religious and moral traditions would praise.
posted by jedicus at 7:47 AM on February 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


@math: So what to do? Should we fund this kind of life, enabling these addictions in the hope that it will keep them off the street and out of the ERs? It's probably cheaper, and it's probably politically untenable. I don't know what the right decision is, I really don't.

Why is it politically untenable? (Not a snarky comment). What is wrong with letting people settle? Why is constant desire, which is by definition ultimately insatiable, considered a desirable trait?
posted by asymptotic at 7:49 AM on February 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


This would just make the problem we have with unemployment even worse- if people don't have to make their money, they never, ever will.

Yes, those horrible "people" I keep hearing about. Grrrrr. I must not ever become one of those people!
posted by blucevalo at 7:51 AM on February 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


"700 dollars for a month, versus making 1000 in a month doing some sort of work? They'll never bother to improve anything."

This absurd conservative argument comes up any time social welfare programs are discussed. The idea seems to be that, given a certain amount of guaranteed income, people won't bother to work for more.


Hi, former poor person here AND in one with a degree in agricultural and development economics. I received government benefits for food and medicine. When I was considering jobs, I had to weigh whether or not they were worth the fact that I would be losing these benefits. Most jobs just weren't worth it, particularly the jobs poor people typically are able to get like retail staff or food service. I did turn down these type of jobs and finally was offered a white collar job, but how many poor people get offered these kind of jobs?

I'm not trying to make a conservative point. Maybe like the first comment we should give all people some minimum. This article questions the non-profit/bureaucratic middleman, but there are other middleman. Why not restructure our food subsidies so instead of going to producers, they go to consumers? What if everyone got a $200 a month food stamp allotment regardless of their income? Poor people would be able to afford a bare minimum of food and others might just increase their food quality, which would fight food-related disease. It would also provide the flexibility to support smaller producers rather than large commodity farms given the greater consumer choice involved.

I mean the other strategy to deal with the fact that benefits can be a disincentive to work is to make them as humiliating as possible, which doesn't work (see the lines at most service offices in the city) and is just wrong IMHO.
posted by melissam at 7:54 AM on February 18, 2011 [5 favorites]


When I was considering jobs, I had to weigh whether or not they were worth the fact that I would be losing these benefits

This is 'the benefits trap,' and it is (as you go on to suggest) solved by making the benefit a guaranteed minimum. That way it always makes sense to work for more.
posted by jedicus at 7:57 AM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


As so often, this thread has jumped to abstract principles of justice for organising society very early on.

Looking at the specific case we have a tiny number of long-term homeless who haven't been helped by other institutions there to help them. The amounts of money are also tiny, but if they really make such a big difference long-term in these people's lives surely a good investment for both humanitarian and social welfare. There are no proofs here about how society should be reorganised, only a positive suggestion for dealing with a particular problem.

One issue this does raise is the paternalism built into the current ways of looking after these people. None of the institutions concerned, from police to homeless charities to social workers has ever properly asked these people what they wanted, only what asked themselves what the homeless need and should be given. Indeed one might question whether those institutions have become somewhat complacent about the status quo and their do-gooder know-better positions in it.

Chronic homelessness in a more-or-less civilised country like the UK should be a national shame. We should be throwing all sorts of ideas as well as money and good intentions at solving it.
posted by Philosopher's Beard at 8:00 AM on February 18, 2011 [4 favorites]


I always have some rather deep-seated anxiety when it comes to giving to the homeless. It's sort of a crap shoot around here; I've had the following experiences:

Homeless kid offers to write me a poem for change. I decline, but instead go into the convenience store and bring breakfast out to him -- he seemed genuinely thankful. I felt great!

Gave a man $5 when he said he needed food... then watched as he walked across the street and bought a bottle of cheap wine with his take thus far. I felt like a total sucker.

I have handed a panhandler on the corner all of cash in my wallet (maybe about 15 bucks...not a lot) after witnessing him get verbally and physically harassed by a flock of douchebags who were stopped at the opposing light on their crotch-rockets. I felt great again.

I have witnessed the same "pregnant" woman panhandling on the same corner for two years...long time to carry a baby. I have seen limps change feet. Everybody is a vet. And I have seen panhandlers literally discard the food items that strangers have given to them before leaving their corner -- just throw sandwiches, apples, bananas, etc right down on the street.

Then again, through a work partnership with a local charity, we had the opportunity to raise enough money to buy a homeless couple a mobile home.

It really makes you question everything about giving to the homeless. I like feeling like I'm helping, but where and how do you do it, you know?

It seems to me that, by and large, the charities are the way to go. When I see somebody on the corner, I have to make a snap judgment to determine whether or not I am being hustled. I hate driving by panhandlers and having to do that fake-ass "i don't see this" routine, and the charities may have their operating expenses... but at least I know that the bulk of my money is providing good things...food, shelter...and not alcohol or meth.
posted by kaseijin at 8:01 AM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


For better or worse, a single word came to mind as I RTFA, and recurred louder and louder as I read the comments here: Hamsterdam.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:03 AM on February 18, 2011 [4 favorites]


"Personal Budgets" are quickly becoming the default for social service provision in most local authorities in the UK. the idea being that people sit down and figure out what they need, a social worker agrees on their needs, they are given a ballpark figure on how much social services money that entitles them to, they come up with a plan for how to spend their money to meet their needs, and voila! the money is theirs. they have to account for how they spend it of course, but there are very few restrictions on how the money can be used, as long as it meets an identified need.

really.

usually people *know what they need* to sort out their lives - and very often, it's not what the government has to offer. the government may be good at buying a giant block of nursing home beds, but it is not very good if you only need a neighbour to pop round and make sure you're okay before going to bed, or maybe someone to help you sort out your doctor's appointments. the government may be good at running day centres for people with learning disabilities, but it's not so great if what would really help you make friends and prevent social exclusion is a season ticket to watch the local football team play every week.

Personal Budgets are a radical way of trusting people to know what would help them most, enabling them to find it, using money for small services that create more inclusive communities, and getting better outcomes for people.

it's the letting go of our requirement for moral approbation that's really the most difficult bit.
posted by wayward vagabond at 8:05 AM on February 18, 2011 [10 favorites]


A lot of charities are incredibly paternalistic towards the homeless. The only ones I give to help through getting their applications for food stamps approved. I think food stamps are the perfect mix of choice and practicality.
posted by melissam at 8:07 AM on February 18, 2011


And I have seen panhandlers literally discard the food items that strangers have given to them before leaving their corner -- just throw sandwiches, apples, bananas, etc right down on the street.

I help operate a vegetarian foodshare here in Des Moines -- we're no slouches either, we have chefs from fine restaurants in the area assisting -- and we often have homeless people who refuse to eat what we make. You'd figure the most generous food critics are the starving, but they're surprisingly fickle.
posted by Homeskillet Freshy Fresh at 8:08 AM on February 18, 2011


It's funny, too, since this idea directly contradicts another common conservative argument, which is that the rich deserve their money since they worked so hard for it. So which is it? Do people work harder for more money or do they only scrape by with the bare minimum?

I love watching conservatives twitch when I use this argument suggest that welfare programs be funded entirely through a marginal 99% estate tax on all assets over $1 million. After all, the kids didn't earn their money through hard work.

But, really, I think I have a solution that you could agree with, even using conservative "logic" posted by schmod at 8:08 AM on February 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


Resources must be available for anybody who is legitimately unable to work to live comfortably, without overly burdening their families. We already have this through programs like Social Security and Medicaid. Why doesn't the guy talking to himself on the street corner also qualify for similar forms of aid? Expand these programs to make sure that people who legitimately need help get it.

They often do qualify for all kinds of aid that they don't get because the application process is so ridiculous. One of my friends works for a charity that helps homeless apply to these programs and it's absurd. Often the requirements of paperwork she can deal with, but they she has to battle with the fact a perennially drunk man with schizophrenia is unlikely to show up for his mandatory interview for food stamps. In NYC they have gotten some great laws passed that allow her non-profit to do most of the interview process, but that last part where they need to go to some government office and wait in line for several hours really keeps a lot of homeless from getting the benefits they qualify for.

Benefit programs need to be streamlined and their application process made more reasonable. I feel like the current process is only in place because government workers have lobbied for it to be drawn out so they have more work and can keep their jobs.
posted by melissam at 8:13 AM on February 18, 2011 [2 favorites]



This would just make the problem we have with unemployment even worse- if people don't have to make their money, they never, ever will.


Clearly the homeless are just too comfortable. What a gravy train.
posted by Stagger Lee at 8:17 AM on February 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


When I was considering jobs, I had to weigh whether or not they were worth the fact that I would be losing these benefits

It's probably globally optimal that you continued to look for a more productive job.

Generous benefits probably do contribute to unemployment in Denmark or Saudi Arabia. Guaranteed minimum income would probably convince a fair number of people to move to S Dakota (where cost of living is low) and follow their artistic dream, but it might in the same way convince people to take that productive entrepreneurial risk that they never would have otherwise. Everyone really hates perverse incentives created by tested programs (example: VA benefits for the homeless exclusive to having a drug addiction. Not addicted and homeless? Come back with some heroin.) but likes being able to target resources efficiently.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 8:19 AM on February 18, 2011


As the wet houses story yesterday demonstrated, we're giving the poor a lot of money whether we plan to or not -- they tend only to go in for medical help when they are in crisis mode, whih poverty quickly and devestatingly exacerbates, so their unpaid bills are in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. One chronically homeless man can cost a million dollars of taxpayer money over a decade -- that's far more than I made in a decade.

And so it goes with the poor, to one extent or another. We end up picking up their tab, because they cannot, and it costs more than if they just had the money to take care of things in the first place. I suppose one option is just not to pick up the tab anymore -- let a terminally ill poor person die in the gutter, and let children starve to death. But we have chosen not to, probably because we are humane, rather than overtly genocidal to our own poor.

And if we're going to pick up the tab anyway, why not do it in as direct and cost effective a way as possible.

Will people stop working? Some will, I suppose. There's always somebody who abuses any system. But most people would say, hey, now maybe when I work I'll have some money to go to the movies, and buy some decent clothes, and maybe take a vacation, or maybe save some money for an emergency. And some people actually want to find jobs that mean something to them, that isn't just for the sake of money. Helping take care of people's basic needs doesn't eliminate opportunity. It increases it.
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:26 AM on February 18, 2011 [10 favorites]



And I have seen panhandlers literally discard the food items that strangers have given to them before leaving their corner -- just throw sandwiches, apples, bananas, etc right down on the street.


I always thought that giving someone a banana when they were asking for a dollar is the ultimate in "fuck you" moves. I can't say I blame them.
posted by Stagger Lee at 8:26 AM on February 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


But shall we completely disregard people's agency? I've worked for a number of years with a poor family in northern Indiana. They've got like six-odd kids, not all of whom are at home, and who have been taken by CPS more than once. Mom refuses to work, dad is intermittently employed and done time for both drunk driving and burglary. Both have a history of drug use. But their siblings, who were raised in identical circumstances, are more-or-less keeping it together. Sure, they've got problems and they need better access to health care, but they aren't looking for and don't really need handouts.
Yeah, but it sounds like they're still pretty poor. They may not be homeless, but "more or less keeping it together" combined with "better access to healthcare" is not a normal middle class life. What happens if one of them falls ill? Sounds like they'd basically be screwed. They may be one illness away from homelessness without handouts. (Btw, are you sure they're not getting any handouts? No earned income credit? No medicaid? What would have happened to those kids if they'd had a stable middle class life? Or, what would have happened if their parents had been able to collect $1,400 a month and didn't need to burgle to feed them? Do you really think their lives would be worse?
Can we not perhaps find some way of allowing for both personal and structural failings?
Well, right. But why should children suffer because of their parents poor choices?


---

Here's the other thing, we have a 10% unemployment rate. Why exactly it so important that people be forced to look for work? All they're doing is taking jobs from people who want them. What is the actual benefit of making them suffer if they don't work, when there aren't enough jobs to go around in the first place?

I think we'll see more and more automation, and that will mean less and work for people to do.
posted by delmoi at 8:32 AM on February 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


we will all be eating pie, bye and bye--says the old depression song

Funnyh to read these comments abut helping through offering money when at the same time all I see in the papers and on tv is the huge slashes in programs that both parties are aiming for. Hardly going to convince them to announce a new spending idea, no matter how economically right it might be or socially useful it might turn out.
posted by Postroad at 8:42 AM on February 18, 2011


Here's the other thing, we have a 10% unemployment rate. Why exactly it so important that people be forced to look for work? All they're doing is taking jobs from people who want them. What is the actual benefit of making them suffer if they don't work, when there aren't enough jobs to go around in the first place?

I'm actually really curious about this. If we're reaching a point where there just aren't enough jobs for people, how do we continue the belief that not having a job means you're lazy and shiftless? More importantly, how do we go about solving the problems that come with this--do we try to force everyone into a low-paying, meaningless service job in exchange for a pittance to keep them from starving, or do we try to change the paradigm?

The dream of post-scarcity economics is that everyone can live in a utopia doing the work they find most fulfilling--but even if we could achieve this, it seems like most people would rather hold themselves and everyone else back because they're afraid that somebody, somewhere, might be getting a free lunch.
posted by Tubalcain at 9:00 AM on February 18, 2011 [6 favorites]


The fallacy here is the belief that "everyone" is motivated by "more and better" when the fact of the matter is that plenty of "us" strive only for - and are completely satisfied by - "good enough."

No, the fallacy is that this has anything to do with motivation or satisfaction.

There will always be those who are unsatisfied with what they've got, no matter how much money you throw at them. Similarly, there will always be those of us that, for whatever reason, are intrinsically motivated to better themselves no matter how high up Maslow's pyramid they are when they start out.

But the question is not how do we afford to make people self-actualized? The question is, how much as a society are we willing to guarantee? What's our moral baseline? At what point do we watch someone else's suffering before we say enough.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:06 AM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


asymptotic: "I've read enough Ayn Rand threads on the Blue to realise that others who believe in that claptrap lurk around here as well."

The amazing thing here is, on the spectrum of unintended consequences and "big government here to help", this is the least obtrusive mechanism. The direct payment approach is well discussed in economic circles. For any Randian, this should be a workable compromise in towards Libertopia. Less bureaucracy, less moral approbation.

zeek321: Why stop with the homeless?
Similarly, Milton Friedman supported basic income guarantees. I think it makes much more sense than minimum wages and unemployment insurance. His argument was not that people would sit on the couch for $700 and ignore the $1000 job, but that people would sit on the couch for $700 and ignore the $500 dollar job. Remove the employment mandate for that $700 and people will do both. It's pretty sad how instead of that we get the Earned Income Credit and Making Work Pay (is taking jobs that don't pay popular?), which demands you do work to get the benefit.
posted by pwnguin at 9:09 AM on February 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


Benefit programs need to be streamlined and their application process made more reasonable. I feel like the current process is only in place because government workers have lobbied for it to be drawn out so they have more work and can keep their jobs.

I have no great love for the people who staff gov't benefits offices, but I think the blame is misplaced, at least in NYC. The primary responsibility for the awful application process rests with Giuliani and the "punish the poor" mindset that he and others like him champion. Giuliani put policies in place with the explicit intention of cutting the number of people getting benefits by making it difficult or impossible for some people to comply. Many of these policies have been removed through class action lawsuits and other efforts, but some are still there. Welfare reform in '96 is also to blame, and the simple fact that a lot of safety net programs have ludicrously complex eligibility requirements that the govt workers must ensure are followed.
posted by Mavri at 9:10 AM on February 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


"Personal Budgets" are quickly becoming the default for social service provision in most local authorities in the UK.

I've spent some portion of the last two years working on a pilot programme seeking to bring personalized budgets into the drug treatment arena here in the UK.

I won't say it hasn't been a struggle. The combination of red tape and the unwillingness of those with power to cede control has meant that there have been significant compromises that needed to be made. Unlike other areas of social care, nobody is handing over large sums of cash to heroin addicts and crack heads. Most of the energies are going into aftercare provision (post detox and rehab stuff) rather than in work with people in the stabilization and maintenance phases. (We're doing work on personalization and more person centred approaches in those areas as well, but those are more around treatment choice rather than personalized budgets.)

But our findings are almost identical to those of this group working with the homeless. By and large, the needs that people are seeking to have met are fairly modest. Stuff like 'buy me a bike so I can get to job interviews'. One woman (not in our area, but one of the other pilot areas) wanted the scheme to buy her beehives. By doing so, she was developing a new skill that she planned to expand into a small business, and she was expanding her circle of non-drug using friends. All this stuff was a practical way of increasing her recovery capital in ways that a million group sessions could never have delivered.

It still brings with it it's own bureaucracy though. You need brokers to help people to develop their personalized care plans that are going to be funded by these personalized budgets. You need people to oversee the viability of the plans before the money gets awarded.

Given the new financial strictures and constraints though, an idea that looked like it had the potential for delivering real progress, both in how we treat people who use drug treatment services, and in the outcomes they acheive, looks like it's going to die in the water. Though drug treatment is on a standstill budget this year, it's hard to imagine that it's going to remain that way in the near future, when the ring fence comes off the drug treatment spend and pressure on other services means that investment in that area starts to shrink as it's diverted into areas that enjoy a greater priority with the general public.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 9:37 AM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


My wife works at a Veteran's Affairs hospital, and she has told me of homeless individuals who get $3000 month in compensation and spend the entire sum on drugs and alcohol. She sees the same individuals panhandling on the freeway off ramp next to the hospital and around town.

I've found that over the years I've become more cynical about problems like this. I feel like there's a lot of help out there from community organizations and government agencies for people that truly need it, but that there is a certain set of homeless people who would rather live on the street than get help. Most programs available require people to maintain sobriety, and most addicts can't or won't give up the drugs for '3 hot and a cot'.

I'm can agree that it may be more efficient to just give people money directly than pass it through multiple levels of bureaucratic waste, but I think the question is how much of a societal responsibility we owe to people that choose to opt out of being productive members of society. We can't just give money to people who choose not to work, can we?
posted by daHIFI at 9:52 AM on February 18, 2011


We can't just give money to people who choose not to work, can we?

Why not?
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:43 AM on February 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


The good news is, the government has long been spending billions on facilities to feed, house, and clothe the poor and working class.

The bad news is they're all prisons.
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 10:53 AM on February 18, 2011 [6 favorites]


Why not?

The money doesn't come from the magic money tree. The people that have to work to provide that money feel it's unfair that they should have to support "freeloaders". So in a democracy they will vote for leaders/policies that don't give their money away.
posted by Long Way To Go at 10:55 AM on February 18, 2011




The money doesn't come from the magic money tree. The people that have to work to provide that money feel it's unfair that they should have to support "freeloaders". So in a democracy they will vote for leaders/policies that don't give their money away.


But they gladly pass the majority of profits on to their bosses/company owner/some guy with a yacht.

It isn't about fair, there's always somebody "freeloading." It's hard to argue that Donald Trump needs yachts more than the poor need food.
posted by Stagger Lee at 11:31 AM on February 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


The people that have to work to provide that money feel it's unfair that they should have to support "freeloaders".

Uh huh. And why do the people have to work again?

This is what we call circular reasoning.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 11:45 AM on February 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


Add up the following:

- 90% of the cost of the US prison industry
- 100% of the cost of all unemployment programs
- 100% of the cost of SSDI (social security disability income)
- 100% of the cost of the EIC (earned income credit)
- multiple other federal, state, and local expenses for urgent needs

add all that up and divide it by the population of the U.S. Hell yes, why not just give everybody that amount.

The "free rider problem" is a red herring. We're rich enough as a nation to afford many free riders.

My only concern about this guaranteed base income approach is that all the rent seekers will swoop in to remove the individual benefit. If everybody has a "free" $500 per month, then all rents will increase by $150 a month; cell phone service will increase by $50 per month; etc. Prices always seem to rise to take all the available money (witness higher education).
posted by yesster at 4:29 PM on February 18, 2011


We're rich enough as a nation to afford many free riders.

Truth is, people would rather burn their money than give it away under those expectations, because it would prove their false theory to be correct about poverty and laziness and they would deem it a righteous favor to you. On the other hand, what a nightmare for any future liberalism, R.I.P.
posted by Brian B. at 5:12 PM on February 18, 2011


Karl Polanyi. It's in there.
posted by carping demon at 8:48 PM on February 18, 2011


So in a democracy they will vote for leaders/policies that don't give their money away.

No. They just vote for people who don't give their money away to the poor. They have no problem with us taking that money, digging a deep pit, putting the money in the pit, and then setting fire to it, as long as a rich man benefits.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:03 PM on February 18, 2011


@daHIFI: I'm can agree that it may be more efficient to just give people money directly than pass it through multiple levels of bureaucratic waste, but I think the question is how much of a societal responsibility we owe to people that choose to opt out of being productive members of society. We can't just give money to people who choose not to work, can we?

Choice. What can we possible know about the choices of others, I mean truly know? Are you absolutely certain every single homeless person you see on the street has made a choice to live in squalour and destitution? Along the same lines, when someone makes a choice to settle at a given level of living standards can we stand up and scream "But you have chosen wrongly!"? To what extent can we a) know of other's choices, and b) judge their choices?

This thread is starting to get some remarkable similarities to epic fat thread a few days ago. In it, there was a particularly epic post by sonascope:
A lot of people would probably point to the fact that each little quip like this pissed me off as some sort of sign of neurosis, but honestly, the trip from a moderately fat person to a merely stocky one really wiped the scales from my eyes about the extent to which the morbid disease of shame reinforcement infiltrates the bones and sinews of my fellow Americans. We're a country founded by self-hating puritan idiots, fleeing oppression to find an amazing new land where we could oppress other people instead, and we love the mortification of the body, and the self-flagellation of shame.
Rather than restricting the analysis to Americans, I'd say we have some serious, serious issues with our relationship to those less fortunate than us. And I mean us. Never forget Rawls - what if it was you? Me?
posted by asymptotic at 3:17 AM on February 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Homeskillet Freshy Fresh wrote: I help operate a vegetarian foodshare here in Des Moines -- we're no slouches either, we have chefs from fine restaurants in the area assisting -- and we often have homeless people who refuse to eat what we make.

Do you want to feed hungry people or do you want to impose your morality on them?
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:49 AM on February 19, 2011


Do you want to feed hungry people or do you want to impose your morality on them?

Giving someone free kosher food isn't imposing Judaism on them. There was no mentioned pledge of allegiance against meat, they just don't make any.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 8:53 AM on February 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


We're a country founded by self-hating puritan idiots, fleeing oppression to find an amazing new land where we could oppress other people instead, and we love the mortification of the body, and the self-flagellation of shame.

This is probably the fifth time someone projected an intense emotion onto their opponents in this thread. It misses the point. Hustler's know when they are being hustled. Managing homelessness instinctively alerts people who smell a scam to a flaw, so they get suspicious of the middle man and the profiteering that cash allowances would entail. Their hatred of the middle man, or of cash giving, is not equal to hatred of the disadvantaged. They typically venerate money like a fetish, as power, but that means they subconsciously respect the homeless for not wanting any, and pity them for needing things you can buy with it.

So when the political plans come rolling in for this and that homeless remedy, people will look at those plans and disagree. Some would point out that giving a drug or gambling addict cash is based on a very deep denial that taunts a disability with what they are subconsciously avoiding (to eat from the givers hand, perhaps to satisfy a demonic urge they learned in church). Fortunately, though, cash is not best for the basic necessities in life, just like when we go to grade school and they just give us the knowledge without directly paying for it, because we need everyone to have it. As a tool in a systems approach, cash is good for preference transactions not based on human necessity, to steer the economy into productivity. Placing necessities in a preference/choice economy is what makes people homeless in the first place.
posted by Brian B. at 10:25 AM on February 19, 2011


I could really get behind this. I spent years working with a populations of people (economically challenged people with mental illness) who were at great risk of homelessness. And let me tell you, the structures we currently have to assist people are very depressing.

In my experience, people become homeless because they lose their current housing for whatever reason (a family member kicks them out, they can't pay their rent, they break the rules of the housing project they live in, they are arrested...) and they don't have the money to pay for a place to stay.

Where do they then turn? Federally or locally funded housing programs generally have long waiting lists of 6 months or more, if a person even qualifies. You have to have a certain regular minimum income to qualify, and if you have a criminal record, or have been evicted from housing in the past (say for letting someone else who was homeless stay with you against the rules), you're out of luck.

Other than that the only alternative are homeless shelters generally run by non-profits, in my experience usually Christian charities. I watched many, many of my clients deal with my local Christian mission and one thing became clear: they were willing to give people a place to live, but at a cost. That cost was unpaid work in their thrift stores for about 30 hours per week in exchange for their room and board. When I would talk with the people at the mission about how they could help someone transition into permanent housing, they looked at me blankly. They were not interested in people finding jobs or permanent housing. To my eyes all they wanted was free labor for their profit making ventures that paid their own salaries.

Did they fill a need in the community with emergency assistance to keep people from dying? Yes. Did they improve people's lives in the long-term with all their case management and pastoral counseling? Not as far as I ever saw. Maybe $500 to pay for a month's rent would be a far saner solution.
posted by threeturtles at 2:36 PM on February 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


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