The Power of Personality: What Happens When You Give a Homeless Man $100k?
By Bryan Caplan
The homeless are different from you and me, and it’s not because they have less money. It’s because they are extraordinarily low in what personality psychologists call conscientiousness. That’s my theory, anyway. A quite watchable documentary on Showtime (and that’s high praise from me, I strongly prefer fiction) puts my theory to the test. It’s called “Reversal of Fortune,” and it’s got a simple set-up: The film-makers picked Ted, a homeless man in Pasadena, gave him $100,000, and filmed the results.
We initially see Ted’s life on the streets. He sleeps under a bridge and does enough recycling to pay for beer, cigarettes, and a little food. He is surprisingly articulate – low IQ is not his problem. It would be easy for someone to argue that Ted has simply been unlucky, and that his drinking is “just a response to the hopelessness of his situation.”
Then he gets $100k. He starts off with some reasonable purchases: He gets a new bike with a trailer for transportation, checks into a motel, and gets cleaned up. But that’s as far as it goes. Once he’s got his basic needs taken care of, Ted starts blowing through his fortune at high speed: A brand new truck, extravagant gifts, and daily carousing at the bar with fair-weather girlfriends. So much for drinking being a response to hopelessness!
Ted keeps muttering about how he should get his (horrifying) teeth fixed, but doesn’t even schedule a dental appointment. Family members nag him to be more prudent, but he stubbornly declares that he lives day by day. After six months, he apparently stops cooperating with the film crew – they can only guess that he’s just about broke.
Frankly, I think Ted did better than most homeless people would have. But his story helps explain why there is so much redistribution in kind. If Ted were just given vouchers for a modest apartment and a daily buffet meal, $100,000 could have lasted a decade. Well, that’s optimistic: He probably would have traded access to food and shelter for liquor, and gotten evicted once the neighbors started to complain.
Libertarians have occasionally offered their critics the following deal: We’ll support a one-time Equalization of Wealth, if you agree to abolish the welfare state. I’m not surprised that no one has taken the bait. Most poor people aren’t as dysfunctional as Ted. But deep down even bleeding hearts subscribe to my insensitive theory that – at least in the First World – ordinary prudence is enough to keep almost anyone out of poverty.