Why Does Homelessness Persist in Rich Liberal Cities?
By Bryan Caplan
During my stay in SoCal, a surprising thought kept returning to me: Why hasn’t government solved the problem of homelessness? I know this question seems out of character. But I not saying that government should solve the problem of homelessness; I’m wondering why it hasn’t.
What’s the puzzle? At least in my experience, the homeless congregate in urban areas with (a) extremely liberal median voters, and (b) high-end retail businesses that clearly don’t want the homeless around. Why hasn’t a “bootleggers and Baptists” coalition between these two groups formed to bestow free housing, food, and cash on the homeless to the point where they give up begging?
If this seems simplistic, keep in mind that (a) real estate values in Santa Monica, San Diego, and downtown L.A. are through the roof, and (b) even in areas with relatively big homelessness problems, only a small fraction of the population is homeless.
Now I understand why homelessness hasn’t been solved at a federal level. The median U.S. voter isn’t a Santa Monica liberal, and doesn’t run a business where beggers keep scaring off the customers. But it’s far less clear why places like Santa Monica haven’t raised taxes on immobile real estate to get the homeless off the street.
Admittedly, such a program would probably have to be more paternalistic than regular welfare. The homeless would blow a monthly check on a weekend binge, and swap food stamps for drugs. You’d have to feed them in well-stocked cafeterias, and give them their cash on a daily basis. (High-end retail would be particularly pleased if the cafeterias and cash centers were ten miles away from them).
Why hasn’t this happened? The simplest answer is that the homeless like their lifestyle. Even if you gave them a nice apartment, three cafeteria meals a day, and beer money, they’d keep bugging the tourists in Santa Monica. Maybe, but it’s important to distinguish between the plausible view that the homelessness prefer their lifestyle to conforming to normality, and the implausible view that they would sleep on the streets and beg even if they had comfortable apartments and pockets full of cash.
There’s also a popular view that begging provides a pretty good income, but I’ve seen enough homeless people digging through garbage cans for food to be skeptical.
So what gives? My best story just comes down to mobility. Places like Santa Monica have already tried to throw money at the homeless problem. The result was that they attracted more homeless to Santa Monica, until funds that were initially ample were once again stretched thin. If Santa Monicans redoubled their efforts, they would soon redouble their homeless population as well.
Anyone got a better story?