07 July 2006

Math and homelessness

Ezra Klein, writing at The American Prospect, finds Bush administration policy worthy of praise: some counterintuitive but very pragmatic policies for handling homelessness that appear to work. He points us at a fascinating New Yorker article which explains the logic of the policy, which we're trying here in San Francisco with our notoriously big homeless population.
The current philosophy of welfare holds that government assistance should be temporary and conditional, to avoid creating dependency. But someone who blows .49 on a Breathalyzer and has cirrhosis of the liver at the age of twenty-seven doesn’t respond to incentives and sanctions in the usual way. “The most complicated people to work with are those who have been homeless for so long that going back to the streets just isn’t scary to them,” Post said. “The summer comes along and they say, ‘I don’t need to follow your rules.’ ” Power-law homelessness policy has to do the opposite of normal-distribution social policy. It should create dependency: you want people who have been outside the system to come inside and rebuild their lives under the supervision of those ten caseworkers in the basement of the Y.M.C.A.
What's this about “power law” vs “normal distribution” social policy? It's math, but easy to understand. Check out the New Yorker article for an explanation ... and an exploration of the tricky moral implications ... and a look at what the principle means for not only homelessness but smog testing, police oversight, and more.

No comments: