The launch of the Democratic presidential primary races has come with a new willingness to consider Big Ideas. Republican calls for tax cuts for the wealthy and austerity for absolutely everyone else continue without change, but polls show the general public has soured on both Republican rhetoric and Republican results. There is room for crafting something new. It may be single-payer health insurance, of the sort used by other nations to achieve better healthcare results than our current system. It may be a new willingness to rein in Wall Street’s most egregious gambling, or new penalties for lenders that habitually cheat their own customers.
Matt Yglesias pipes up with evidence for what could be another Big Idea worth considering. What if we worked to solve homelessness the most cost-efficient way: by providing homes?
[G]ood policy also requires greater awareness of a fundamental research insight that is becoming a point of consensus among policy insiders — it’s cheaper to give homeless people homes to live in than to let the homeless live on the streets and try to deal with the subsequent problems.
That may be a counterintuitive result, but the research backs it up. Policing, emergency medical care, non-emergency medical care, waste cleanup, and other costs associated with homelessness are all expensive. They turn out to be more expensive than simply providing homeless Americans with a taxpayer-funded room and bed, a safe place for their belongings and themselves, and an address to use when job-hunting. So why not do the cheaper thing, the thing that both costs less and leads to significantly better outcomes for all involved?
New research aside, it’s not a novel observation. This is what public housing projects of the past have sought to accomplish, reducing homelessness and homelessness-related crime by providing cheap, if bare, residences in areas where housing pressures have priced a significant portion of residents out of the private market. But that approach is bitterly fought over, most infamously in recent years by those who benefited from that taxpayer generosity but who now call themselves self-made and have now moved into the same top income brackets that, during their own childhood, provided much of the funding for those projects.
The conservative view is that such an approach is coddling the unfortunate, reducing the desperation they ought to feel to get out of their dire straits themselves. In the conservative view, such circumstances are a winnowing-out of the weak—and if any such help is provided, it should be provided as religiously premised charity efforts, with restrictions crafted by each religious sect in accordance to its own judgments of the applicant. State-sponsored efforts are groused about as forced charitable acts, and are regularly denounced for not attaching the same religious and ideological restrictions to the help given.
The more liberal view, both past and present, is that fears of supposed “undeserving” recipients gaining taxpayer assistance amidst the “deserving” is, even presuming the validity of such a frame, irrelevant: Even an effort that unintentionally provided for such hangers-on would be so substantially cheaper than current outlays that taxpayers would still be better-off providing a handful “too much” support than paying for the policing, healthcare, and other built-in costs of doing too little for everyone else. It’s not as if those supposed deadbeats are not ballooning costs in the current system, after all: Are we to believe that only the worthy are racking up enormous, taxpayer-subsidized emergency room bills?
So, then: the Big Idea. Why not just … end homelessness? It cannot be fully done, but we can come close. Minimal housing, whether it be a simple room and bed for an individual or an apartment for a temporarily impoverished family, is a necessity not only for Americans who find themselves in such straits, but for every other American currently obliged to pay the excess costs associated with keeping the homeless properly miserable. It would require an expansion of HUD, one that would be more than offset by reduced state and local costs.
It is not that simple, of course. Putting a family in a temporary place they can call home at taxpayer expense is always, each and every time, called socialism by those whose own moral conscience is not particularly troubled by the alternative. And even the most liberal communities tend to get upset, and loud, when any such housing efforts are undertaken near them. Everybody wants to reduce homelessness—but only if it results in the once-homeless not living particularly close to them.
That, too, is a problem we will have to solve. But what if we, as one of our big new ideas … tried?