Thursday, December 4, 2008

Handouts and the Homeless

I agree that the idea of supporting the homeless as a community service is a matter of perception, I.e., is it really constructive to enable people to live on handouts? However there are some important facts being left out of the discussion. In a society of more than 300 million, there are a number of inescapable eventualities.

It is true that some of these people simply choose not to work because as a society we enable them to do so. That is not to say that ALL of them do, because that is not the case. In fact the majority of these people are mentally ill. Some of them are so tragically ill that they even refuse critical aid they need.

Lets show some temperance here and make a distinction between these groups. I don't have any sympathy for the minority young male who views society as hostile because in his view we owe him a living. But for the aging schizophrenic alcoholic whose objective view of reality is no better than a Picasso abstract, aid becomes a societal obligation.

Let me emphasize that I not implying that every working person is personally responsible. I am only saying that as a whole, we need to address the mathematically inevitable underclass. The idea that every person is capable of making their own way is just indulgent naiveté. We have created a massive society that as a whole seems resoundingly successful, but that comes with a cost: There is always going to be a certain percentage of the population that is mentally incompetent, and until we can cure mental illness that will continue to be the case.

If we house them, the quantifiable cost does go up. But if we don't house them then crime and its costs, and abuse by others goes up. There is no easy or perfect solution. So, with the realization that many will not agree with any solution, I say the closing of the mental institutions was a misdirected sentiment.

They were closed because of claims of abuse, and because “They don't work”. Yet, the exact opposite is true. Yes there were abuses of some, but throwing these people out victimized them all. So now they freeze and starve in the winter, and defecate in public while providing targets for street thugs. When they are not being robbed or beaten, they are stealing as well, in order to survive. Putting these people on the street is always going to make them worse, not better.

Secondly, the point is not to “rehabilitate” the mentally ill anyway. They created jobs. They provided employment for medical, psychological, and research staff. I don't care if the government funds American scientists to study American patients if it comes at the expense of funding some automaker in Zkrgzftambia.

If that leads to reports of abuse of patients in our asylums, fine. That only means we can provide training and employment for human services professionals to monitor and improve the system. This is where government money should go. Not legislating the proximity of billboards to schools, or giving tax-breaks to oil companies with historically obscene profits, or funding outreach programs in foreign countries.

Instead of spending trillions of dollars bailing out irresponsible corporations in dire straits for no better reason than greed, what if we had been spending the money on social programs that protect the vulnerable while creating competitive jobs for the responsible? Would we still have needed to force banks into so many trillions of dollars in sub-prime mortgages if people could have afforded their mortgages in the first place?

Instead of forcing loans to people who can't afford them, how about helping people afford them? Promoting the general welfare is mandated in the constitution, corporate bailout is not. Defense of American soil is mandated, defense of foreign national interests to our own detriment is not.

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