Apple pie and power-law policies

It has often been said that one bad apple spoils the bunch.

In 2004, when the scandal surrounding the Abu Ghiraib prison scandal broke, the idea that the problem was not endemic, but merely a few soldiers who got out of control in an unfortunately understaffed and poorly supervised environment was not difficult for the public to believe.

During the 2006 elections, the implosion of Mark Foley’s career for inappropriate behaviour with congressional pages, was declaimed to be, not an official Republican party position, but rather a unfortunate exception; a case that had fallen through the cracks. Nevertheless, not even the bluest Democrat, while simultaneously sickened by the facts and amused by late night pundits, really thought that the entire Republican party had collapsed into a den of pederasts.

In both of these cases, the broader American public had no problem accepting the fact that not all American soldiers were abusing Iraqi prisoners and not all Republican congressmen were making passes at pages. But the public did demand a change in the system to avoid these kinds of cases in the future. Unfortunately in both these cases, the changes, while they might add a couple of jobs in an office of oversite or a new level of bureaucracy, it is doubtful that abuses will be permanently avoided.

But these two cases do have something in common. Both are examples, not of a global average behaviour, but of something completely off the scale. Humans usually think in terms of averages and bell curves, most people lie somewhere in the middle between two extremes. But in some cases, it is obvious that the curve doesn’t work that way.

These cases sometimes follow what is called a power law rule. Most of the data is absolutely normal. Only a few very few cases are exceptional. Sometimes, the fact that the curve isn’t bell shaped is far from obvious.

In an excellent article for the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell describes one case where this problem is highlighted, homelessness. He describes the homeless problem based on research done by a graduate student in the 1990’s. His research changed the way people started to approach the issue of homeless.

In the nineteen-eighties, when homelessness first surfaced as a national issue, the assumption was that the problem fit a normal distribution: that the vast majority of the homeless were in the same state of semi-permanent distress. It was an assumption that bred despair: if there were so many homeless, with so many problems, what could be done to help them? Then, fifteen years ago, a young Boston College graduate student named Dennis Culhane lived in a shelter in Philadelphia for seven weeks as part of the research for his dissertation. A few months later he went back, and was surprised to discover that he couldn’t find any of the people he had recently spent so much time with. “It made me realize that most of these people were getting on with their own lives,” he said.

Culhane then put together a database—the first of its kind—to track who was coming in and out of the shelter system. What he discovered profoundly changed the way homelessness is understood. Homelessness doesn’t have a normal distribution, it turned out. It has a power-law distribution. “We found that eighty per cent of the homeless were in and out really quickly,” he said. “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. Anyone who ever has to stay in a shelter involuntarily knows that all you think about is how to make sure you never come back.”

The next ten per cent were what Culhane calls episodic users. They would come for three weeks at a time, and return periodically, particularly in the winter. They were quite young, and they were often heavy drug users. It was the last ten per cent—the group at the farthest edge of the curve—that interested Culhane the most. They were the chronically homeless, who lived in the shelters, sometimes for years at a time. They were older. Many were mentally ill or physically disabled, and when we think about homelessness as a social problem—the people sleeping on the sidewalk, aggressively panhandling, lying drunk in doorways, huddled on subway grates and under bridges—it’s this group that we have in mind.

The article goes on to describe a project in Denver targeting not the general homeless population but the perceived problem of homelessness. This program targets what can be considered the classic ‘bum,’ the chronically homeless. But the idea is so strange, so anti-intuitive, that one could only imagine it coming from the pen of a radical socialist. But oddly one of the programs biggest proponents, not just in Denver, but nation wide, is George W. Bush.

The idea for solving the ‘problem’ of homelessness is simple. Give the homeless homes – for free, no strings attached. Apartments paid for by the government and supervised by a legion of social workers. Indeed, if chronically homeless drift off due to alcohol or drug excesses or they lose the apartment for some other reason; you give them another one, and another one. The Denver program is part of the nationwide effort, spearheaded by the administration, called the “Interagency Council on Homelessness

And at first blush, the idea sounds economically foolish. But here the data differs from the perception. The problem is that the chronically homeless, often mentally ill or physically disabled, create a disproportionate load on public support services, police, ambulance services or hospitals. The costs of incarceration, detoxification or medical care can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. Increasingly, social workers, activists and politicians have targeted these individuals to achieve visible results in the ‘war against homelessness.’ As a matter of fact, in a recent report summing up the results of Denver’s “Housing first collaborative” show exactly how much money can be saved.

This program doesn’t apply to all homeless; it is focused only on the chronically homeless and the lists are long for people to enter the program.

And of course in a meritocracy, the idea that one gives the most care to those who are the worst and don’t seem capable of self improvement seems odd. Until now most programs had required that the person become clean or dry or even get a job as a prerequisite for help with housing. While well meaning, many of these programs failed simply because the barrier was too high.

But back to the idea of refusing help to those who cannot help themselves. Societies have given up the idea of killing deformed babies, literally throwing them to the wolves; we care and nurture these children and adults even if it is obvious that they will never develop into productive individuals. But it is an anathema that an otherwise undamaged individual might not be able to survive the complexities of modern society; perhaps more than willing to work hard but unable to accept success; an individual fleeing as much from self hate as from society and reality. But these people need to learn to heal themselves, to bootstrap themselves into a community that arguably usually would never accept who they are.

Finally there is another hidden threat in this kind of program. The goal of the program is twofold, reduce spending on homeless programs and reduce the amount of ‘visible’ homelessness.

While both of these goals are laudable, one of the largest segments in the homeless population are not the truly homeless, but what I call the ‘roofless,’ those persons without a roof over their heads for a day, or a week or a month. The cause for this kind of situation is simple – money. One only needs to read Barbara Ehrenbach’s book Nickel and Dimed to understand how close many people are to just losing their grip on what is considered one of the basest rights, a roof over their heads.

It would be nice to imagine a country that would channel any money saved on caring for the chronically homeless into projects protecting and preventing ‘rooflessness.’ Unfortunately, the hospitals will no longer need to book the losses and will improve profit margins; cities will be able to point to improved innercity living areas and mayors will be able to reduce or eliminate spending in sectors where the money is still necessary, especially if the problem becomes less visible.

And even effective programs like “Housing First”, such as the one in Denver, are being threatened by a loss of funding in several years. From the Denver Housing First Collalition report

The DHFC was initially funded through a unique collaboration of federal funding partners. These agencies committed three years of funding for services and five years funding for housing. However, the expectation was that continuation funding would be obtained at the local or state level. The project has had numerous discussions with potential funders. However, as of this date, full continuation funding has not been secured. It is critical that such funding be found in order to continue the important work of the collaborative and to help meet Denver’s goal of ending homelessness in ten years.

Thus, the idea that good ideas survive funding issues and political infighting is just pie in the sky.

But nevertheless, it would just be nice if, in the interests of patriotism, in the interests of Americans helping Americans, indeed, increasingly, in the interests of Americans helping Veterans, that the pie in the sky is made of apples.

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2 comments so far

  1. Teresa on

    There has long been a concept in American philanthropy called “the deserving poor”. Those are the people we want to help; the ones we can “save”, who will be “redeemed” and will laud us and bow and scrape with humility and gratitude for our largess. They will sing our hymns, say our prayers, and gratefully mop up our crap for a few pennies and a warm bed and hot food.

    I don’t give money to organizations like that. Nobody should. Social Justice isn’t charity.

  2. blc303 on

    Ah, yes, but that system is effective as a recruiting technique. If the only people who seem to care are preaching, there must be something to the whole ‘God’ idea.

    But the problem runs deeper than religion.

    It is about people getting something for nothing. All the people who are really trying just not making the grade. That bothers people in a meritocracy.

    While I understand that view point, I would argue two things.

    First , this kind of program saves money on many different levels. Look at the Denver report. There is a lot of support money to be saved using these kinds of programs. The problem is that they are not a solution. They simply ease the status quo.

    But more importantly, were the savings not eliminated from budgets (as I fear they will be) but moved into ‘rooflessness’ prevention programs and self-help projects (perhaps micro-credits) than even more people would be helped.

    I just don’t believe there is any chance of that money staying in a single budget. The mayor will point to a reduction in the visible homeless, the federal government will do the same thing. And in 10 years “Homelessness” will be solved. Unfortunately, neither a solution nor a cure will be found, but people will always claim the budgets are too high.


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