(Ron Knecht) – Mark Pingle, a University of Nevada–Reno economist and President of Reno’s Hayek Group, has convened a monthly discussion among a small group of people focusing on a selected topic each meeting. Recently, we discussed homelessness.
Besides addressing the problem as an elected official, for a few years some time ago, I taught a class for clients of Friends In Service Helping (FISH), some homeless or nearly so. The title of the class was “Managing Your Life and Family Finances.” It taught me at least as much as my students.
I’ve also written some on the subject as a columnist.
As one of the “quants” and “policy nerds” in the group, I would normally present rafts of data, analyses and policy proposals. But this time I left that to others and they did a marvelous job. Instead, I discussed the subject from a humanistic – sociological, psychological, literary and cultural – perspective.
I began with some observations. Friedrich Hayek, the Nobel Prize-winning classical liberal (free market) economist, believed society should provide some measure of support for people, who mainly through no fault of their own, are unable to care appropriately for themselves. Within limits, I agree.
And Jesus said, the poor will always be with us.
When we think of homeless people, we think of the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath. Or maybe Silas in Robert Frost’s poem, The Death of the Hired Hand: “And nothing to look backward to with pride, / And nothing to look forward to with hope.”
Not all homeless persons fit this mold. Some are homeless by choice. And some even geniuses.
Henry David Thoreau was by all modern technical definitions, homeless. Even as he wrote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when it came time to die, to discover that I had not lived.”
Some folks quite reasonably and consciously simply choose not to fit in to conventional life-styles. Thoreau lived on public property, a local woods, as do many homeless people now. However, he benefitted society; most of today’s homeless burden it.
While many a young man who’s a college sophomore just finished reading Thoreau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods, contemplates following in his footsteps, few of our modern homeless folks are of this sort. Overwhelmingly, they are the Joads and Silases of the world. And Jesus was right.
However, as some members of the group pointed out, national statistics show that the last decade their numbers appear to have declined. Except mainly in California, where many folks migrate.
Regardless of actual numbers and trends, they are abundant, even in northern Nevada. Why?
We can rule out some common explanations and proposed remedies. Fifty years ago, the Richard Nixon administration suggested poverty (and thus homelessness) was simply a product of folks not having enough income. Hence, it proposed a negative income tax as a simple and nearly complete solution. Nobel economist Milton Friedman, in one of two great professional mistakes in his life, offered this idea.
Fortunately, folks recognized the problem is not just a lack of income, but a cultural problem.
I suggested three points. First, proportionately as many people in past decades (for example, the hired hand) as today were homeless by modern definitions. It was a fact of life greatly addressed by private charity, but not the obsessive record-keeping and discussion of today’s government intervention, media and politics.
Second, the transactions costs of securing a conventional home in today’s society have driven many people into their cars, our parks and sidewalks. First and last month’s rent deposits, or qualifying financially for bank mortgages. Builders and landlords’ costs of meeting modern building and rental codes, etc. that are necessarily passed on to buyers and renters. Much of these transactions cost increases – and much current homelessnesss – are due to government intervention.
Also, the decay of extended family and neighborhood relations into atomic and mobile families and individuals has killed much community that previously took care of poverty and homelessness.
Finally, Mark observed, the trend to ever smaller families has played a similar role.