Tuesday, February 21, 2006

feb 13&20th issue: gladwell on homelessness

"If there's anything going, and I put in for a bit of it, it's always the same story: "You're undeserving; so you can't have it." But my needs is as great as the most deserving widow's that ever got money out of six different charities in one week at the death of the same husband. I don't need less than a deserving man; I need more. I don' eat less hearty than him; and I drink a lot more." (Mr. Doolittle in George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, or My Fair Lady)

If this seems a little crude (or irrelevant), read on, I'll get there.

First off, given the string of analogies - among LAPD statistics, car pollution statistics and homelessness statistics - you'd think maybe the real topic of Gladwell's investigation was this power-law statistical distribution. That is, a statistical distribution with a low number of high yield cases (extreme repeat offenders, profuse pollutors, often hospitalized individuals) at one end of a distribution curve are responsible for the majority of police violence, pollution, and the costs of homelessness. As opposed to a bell curve distribution, with these problems caused by moderate contributions from the majority.

However, the engaging personal narrative of Murray is supposed to, I guess, give a face to this statistical problem and to focus the article on homelessness policies rather than all three issues, or the statistical model itself.

Basic thesis of the article: That a small number of people without stable residences (say, around 10% of homeless people at any given time) incurr major expenses (for drug and alchohol treatment, violent accidents, exposure) on the part of health and social services on the community level. And that, therefore, more interventionist policies, on behalf of this statistical group, would lower the overall costs of caring for the indigent for local communities.

But with so much attention paid to the power-law statistical model and the implications of that model, I would have liked to start with a better description of Culhane's database, his dissertation and his research. What kind of department is he in? His research ranged from living in a Philadelphia shelter to compiling a "database" . . . (98) that's cool, but where is he coming from, disciplinarily speaking? And Boston College is Catholic Jesuit, right? What kind of investment does a Catholic school have in defining or redefining the problems of public policy on poverty issues?

A second issue: the conflation of "health-care and social services" (101). This is tough, because, um, they're related. This article appealed to my partner in crime because he spends a lot of time being frustrated with how little the health-care system can do for people whose major health-care issues are the direct result of "social" (read ECONOMIC) issues - education, employment, access, insurance, etc. When Culhane claims that " 'It costs twenty-four thousand dollars a year for one of these shelter beds" (101) and Gladwell places this statement in a paragraph that begins "this group cost the health-care and social-services systems far more than anyone ever anticipated" and follows the statement with estimates of medical care, I assume that cot cost is a conflation of health-care and social services. Useful for the argument, but only to a point.

Manango "leading exponent for the power-law theory of homelessness" and Bush appointee as executive director of the US Interagency Council on Homelessness, "Our intent is to take homeless policy from the old idea of funding programs that serve the homelss people endlessly [ie, shelters] to and invest in results that actually end homelessness [new programs, which I'll describe below.]"

Fine, except Culhane's statistics already suggest that 80% of shelter residents at any given time are without stable residences very temporarily, "In Philadelphia, the most common length of time that someone is homeless is one day. And the second most common length is two days. And they never come back." (98) So don't shut down those shelters all at once, they seem to be providing a useful service to the people of Philadelphia. To be fair, Manango doesn't seem to exculsively support the new, more interventionist policies, it's Gladwell's framing of the issue that does this.

OK, so if you didn't read the article you are wondering what are these new programs. Basically, a free apartment and a social worker and the hope that, given a certain amount of stability and responsibility, the individual will not just stay off the streets, but out of the hospital as well. "The idea is that once the people in the program get stabilized they will find jobs, and start to pick up more and more of their own rent, which would bring someone's annual cost to the program closer to six thousand dollars (from around 15 thou, in a Denver market)." And this is "about a third of what he or she would cost on the street [and in the hospital, I feel compelled to add, again]." (103)

The strangest thing about this article is that Gladwell mentions this, "From an economic perspective the approach makes perfect sense. But from a moral perspective it doesn't seem fair. Thousands of people in the Denver area no doubt live day to day, work two or three jobs, and are eminently deserving of a helping hand - and no one offers them a key to a new apartment." (104)

Didn't Gladwell's mother ever tell him that things may not be equal, but they ARE fair?

What I really like about this article, though, is that despite not looking hard enough at this Culhane character, Gladwell does begin to question the motivations and meanings of public policy on poverty issues. He writes, "Social benefits are supposed to have some kind of moral justification. We give them to widows and disabled veterans and poor mothers with small children. Giving the homeless guy passed out on the sidewalk an apartment has a different rationale. It's simply about efficiency." I don't agree with Gladwell; I don't think social benefits need a moral justification, or at least not the moral justification he invokes. The appeal of widows, disabled vets and poor mothers relies on very Victorian-type ideas of charity and, well, the deserving poor and good deeds and so on . . . but I suspect he's being descriptive of popular ideological positions on poverty and public policy.

And this, I think, brings us to the effective satire of the preface.

Alfred P. Doolittle (Stanely Holloway) doubts the value(s) of middle-class morality in Cukor's film version of My Fair Lady (1964). In the same film, his daughter Eliza (Audrey Hepburn) lip syncs, "All I want is a Room Somewhere."

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Blogger mzn said...

Also in the same film, Alfred P. Doolittle sings, "with a little bit of luck, you'll run amok."

4:08 PM  
Blogger zp said...

hopefully there is a reason you call our attention to this line. otherwise i've had that song stuck in my head for 12 hours for nothing.

1:37 PM  
Blogger mzn said...

For nothing? What about your pleasure?

Seriously, I like the idea of Alfred P. Doolittle being our model for the needy. In the film that song expresses his character so perfectly. He's the opposite of "deserving" in Gladwell's sense (in another chorus he sings, "with a little bit of luck, you'll never work!"). I was quoting him only as a way of saying, hear hear.

But I think you might be giving MG a bit of an undeserved break. Even if he is describing an ideological position, he is still saying, "hey my counterintuitive idea will appeal not only to bleeding hearts but to conservatives too, who seek only the best outcome on the bottom line." Reading recently that he is a much-sought speaker at corporate retreats and the like makes me wonder, perhaps unfairly, about what sort of no good he might really be up to. (I hope your Gladwell-worshiping fans won't burn me alive now.)

4:19 PM  
Blogger zp said...

ah, good. just checking to make sure you agreed with me. I'M KIDDING. disagreeements are allowed . . . as long as they are as long winded and winding as i am.

as for gladwell, well, that is some news about his extracurricular speaking. i found this succicient character, who seems interested in health care issues, olog and who seems to have something of a short attention span . . .

10:34 AM  
Anonymous olog said...

by "succicient character," do you mean succinct or sufficient? if it's the latter, i am afraid that doesn't make sense. if it's the former, that also is unsatisfactory, in the context of my "short attention span," which unfortunately prevents me from reading your digest.

10:39 AM  
Blogger zp said...

oh dear. i meant succinct. i was feeling very envious of your ability to say so much with so few words and a well-placed link. i'm tired of being so long winded.

as for the "short-attention span" thing, i think i said this because you mentioned you weren't always able to finish articles by gladwell. but i didn't mean it seriously, since one might be motivated to give up on Gladwell more by a desire to hurl the magazine across the room than an actual short attention span.

there i go - this is still unclear, but now i've used more words.

11:18 AM  

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