Get Wonky: A Modest Proposal

Public goods have a problem: free riders.

In a system of non-excludable, non-rivalrous goods (in which an individual cannot be excluded because they didn’t pay, and in which one individual’s access of the good does not mean another individual cannot access it), people who do not contribute to the value of the goods can use them anyway. These people are called free riders.

The Editorial Board of the Georgia Wonk would like to take a look, just for today, at the ultimate free riders: the homeless in America. Based on estimates from January of last year, there were over half a million homeless men, women, and children in the United States. That’s over half a million homeless individuals (hereafter “HIs”) who are taking out of our system more than they are taking in. Obviously, there are circumstances beyond all of our control; events spiral, and the Editorial Board here at the Georgia Wonk would never condemn someone based on the vicissitudes of fate. The more-than-half-a-million HIs in the United States are a problem, but not an intractable one.

The bigger problem are those HIs who are chronically homeless. The Department of Housing and Urban Development defines a “chronically homeless individual” as an:

[U]naccompanied homeless individual with a disabling condition -who has either been continuously homeless for a year or more, -OR has had at least four (4) episodes of homelessness in the past three (3) years. In order to be considered chronically homeless, a person must have been sleeping in a place not meant for human habitation (e.g., living on the streets) and/or in an emergency homeless shelter.

These Chronically Homeless Individuals (CHIs) are the freest of the free riders. CHIs don’t pay income taxes; they don’t own homes, and therefore pay no property tax; they have no insurance, which means they use emergency services for healthcare; they are more likely to be arrested, ending up in jail or prison (where they are even further subsidized by the taxpayer).

It is difficult to come up with a single agreed-upon cost to taxpayers caused by chronic homelessness. By its very nature, homelessness is an issue that defies perfectly-accurate data collection. Most figures are rough estimates, and are based off of extrapolations informed by the use of jails and emergency services. In 2012, Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan said that “between shelters and emergency rooms and jails, it costs about $40,000 a year for a homeless person to be on the streets,” a statement Politifact rated as “Mostly True. That $40,000 figure has been repeated elsewhere and seems to be something of an article of faith.

According to a 2010 article from Mortgage News Daily, the average cost of homelessness before being granted access to housing was $29,521.60. The Editorial Board has been unable to find more recent data that would suggest a more accurate number, and will remind readers, going forward, that this information is seven years old and potentially out of date.

Based on the figure of $29,521.60 (which, for the sake of convenience, will be rounded up to $30,000), and given the data on chronic homelessness from ProjectHome.org (which suggests that there were, in 2016, 77,486 chronically homesless individuals), the Editorial Board has determined that chronic homelessness costs American taxpayers $2,324,580,000 a year.

The Editorial Board thus proposes the following policy solution, which would incur a 0ne-time cost of less than $25,000: using American-made Smith & Wesson M&P Bodyguard 380 handguns, employees of the Department of Housing and Urban Development would shoot each chronically homeless individual (CHI) in the back of the head with a single .380 ACP round.

There is an obvious question here that the Editorial Board would like to address: Why the .380 ACP and not the more powerful 9x19mm? Why not the far less expensive .22 LR? It is the conclusion of the Editorial Board that the .380 ACP strikes an adequate balance between stopping power and cost–while it is true that the .22 LR cartridge could be purchased for [[AMOUNT]] less than the equivalent amount of .380 ACP ammunition, the Editors were not confident in the ability of the smaller .22 LR to provide a killing shot the first time. The potential need for follow-up shots would increase the amount of ammunition required, which would drive up costs.

The 9x19mm cartridge, with its worldwide acceptance as a combat round, would not have this problem; however, the Editorial Board judged that the extra power it provided would be “overkill.”

Of course, these numbers are only an estimate, and only include the cost of the ammunition itself. There are reasons to believe that the final cost of implementation would be higher, although the Editorial Board is confident that it would not be significantly so. For one, this cost does not include transportation costs associated with traveling around the country, nor does it include the time it would take to seek out over 77,000 individual people. Furthermore, given that we must assume this would take several days, if not at least a week, we would have to assume that food and lodging would have to be provided for the individuals carrying out this agenda. However, we would remind readers that this policy would be carried out by already-employed HUD personnel, whose paychecks are already figured into the budget; it is currently considered separate from both the $2.3 billion associated with CHI’s and the $18,000 included in this assessment.

The Editorial Board is also aware that funds would have to be provided for disposal of CHI bodies, although we are pleased to point out that this would, in fact, create jobs in the local communities.

However, the Editorial Board believes that the initial cost of ammunition can be greatly reduced by buying in bulk–most public data only provides price data for up to 1,000 rounds at a time. There is no reason to assume we would not have access to a discount for buying over 77,000 rounds.

We are caught in a brutal cycle that is as inhumane as it is unsustainable. It is both irrational, from an economic point of view, and cruel to expend resources to provide individuals with just enough support to make sure that they survive, but not enough that their lives have meaning or purpose.

The status quo is obviously untenable. Without a commitment to massively inflate the welfare state, we are trapping the chronically homeless in a state of perpetual misery. We are unable to provide for the kind of stable housing, mental care, and long-term medical treatment that would allow them to re-integrate into society and contribute to the economy; rather, we spend over $2 billion a year keeping them alive, but for no purpose. Who does it serve to admit a CHI into an emergency room, only to return them back to the streets, where they have no prospects or ability to elevate themselves? Why do we, as a society, continue to insist that CHI’s must remain alive, but no more?

It is far cheaper in both the short and long term to implement the strategy suggested here, as well as infinitely more humane.



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