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Work First
August 14, 2023
by William P. Meyers

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Homelessness has become a bad society

In Seattle and other communities dominated by progressive politics we often hear the slogan: Housing First. Here I will argue that to make real progress our slogan should be: Work First. I think the argument over the two strategies should also be compared to the Jail First strategy that many formerly progressive voters are increasingly embracing. For those of you who do not live in Seattle, the government strategy here, the City Council's strategy, has been Rhetoric First. Strangely, that has not worked well, so far, but then we have only been trying it some fifteen years now.

Work First derives from both socialist and free-market principles. Socialism has often been summed up in the phrase "From each according to their abilities; to each according to their needs." Almost everyone has the ability to work. Most disabled persons are only partially disabled, and so can do some work. A junkie can work: watch them work, with committed mind and body, when they need a new supply of fentanyl or crystal meth or cocaine. There may be difficulties matching the work society needs to the skills of individual workers, which is where the free-market advocates say theirs is a better method. Rather than argue that point here, I will accept the idea that both markets and governments can create work, and that a pool of potential workers will be attracted to the work that they see as the best combination of pay and effort required.

Despite the decline in American society's work ethic over the past few generations, most Americans still have a work ethic, to some degree. I know of four sets of people who have little or no work ethic: trust fund kids and other permanent dependents, welfare (including some disability) people, homeless people, and (to a lesser extent) criminals. The last category is arguable: it involves activity, but destructive activity. Here I will focus on the homeless, because they are currently the most obvious problem in Seattle and many other American communities.

Note the Housing First advocates win on obviousness. Give a homeless person housing (usually an apartment, they don't like group shelters) and they are no longer homeless. They may still be a detriment to society, buying drugs, committing crimes, trashing where they live. But they are no longer homeless.

The problem in reality is multifold, even if the newly housed get mental health therapy and treatment for their addictions. Very few people living in the streets of Seattle want mere shelter. They do not want a bed in a shelter. Many will accept an apartment. But apartments in Seattle tend to be all filled up. There is a shortage of reasonably priced apartments, even for those who are employed full time. New apartments are expensive. You can research this issue and get varying results, but ballpark a new, fairly minimal apartment costs about $250,000 to build. For most of the homeless the social workers recommend permanent supportive housing. They use different terminology, but I call that hot and cold running servants and services. That is expensive.

It is really pretty nice, the deal for the disabled and others getting public housing in Seattle. For doing nothing you get an apartment that a person working full time at minimum wage would have difficulty affording. Very few people graduate from public housing to employment with private housing. Why should they? That would require effort, and that would require a work ethic.

I like a rest as much as anyone. I prefer a high-paying, easy job to a low-paying, hard job. I've had both. I understand the reluctance to go back to work when resting or having fun every day is available. But society cannot function if every increasing numbers of people stop working. Whether they live in public housing or in tents.

As far as I can tell, for at least the last decade, for every homeless person given new public housing in Seattle, a new homeless person appears in the streets. Homeless advocates and City Council members don't like to talk about that. If forced to, they attribute it to a lack of affordable housing. Despite the huge number of new apartment buildings that have opened over the past decade.

There is a conveyor belt to homelessness, and it is complex. I will focus on three of its moving parts. First are non-medical drugs and alcohol. Not everyone who tries, or occasionally uses, alcohol, opiates, coke or speed ends up homeless. Some continue working for years or decades, some overdose or succumb to related diseases while still having a home. But particularly with fentanyl (and before that heroin), the odds are very, very bad. Of those who become homeless for other reasons, the chances of ending up addicted to fentanyl are very high.

The second major contributor to homelessness is inability to prioritize, budget, and save. A spectacular number of people spend all of every paycheck, or more if they can get credit. You might argue the problem is low wages, but if you look at the spectrum of people with this problem it is clear that wage levels are not the cause [and I support fair and high wages for people who work]. Some people make minimum wage and save (notably immigrants). Some people make over $100,000 per year and are paycheck to paycheck. It is true that at the upper end of this spectrum people usually avoid homelessness, at some point, by forced cutbacks. But even they can fall into the pit if they lose their jobs and run out of unemployment benefits. Spending part of the paycheck on alcohol and drugs (or gambling or sex services) can lead to having no reserves when the behavior that eventually follows drug use leads to unemployment. And then homelessness. Spending of any sort that eats up a paycheck or more, even on vitamins, education, and eco-vacations, leads to peril. Medical bills can lead to homelessness, but that usually is from not budgeting for medical insurance and its likely deductibles. While occasionally individuals do have learning curves in matters of budgeting as they age, as a whole this has always been a personality based problem with no simple solution.

A third energy source for the conveyor belt to homelessness is crime itself. Crime tends to cause homelessness, coming and going. The left likes to say that poverty, or low income, is the main source of crime. There is some truth to that, but it is also true that in America crime is the main source of poverty. Crime may occasionally pay, but it generally does not pay as well as a steady job. Once a person has established a criminal record, their ability to earn money legally is usually limited. While a few criminals may become millionaires, most end up in dire poverty, forced to commit increasingly risky crimes to stay afloat. Until they float down the drain into jail or prison. If we want to reduce poverty, we need to reduce crime. Society should make an effort to employ young people and get them interested in legal paths to their personal prosperity. The best way to deter overall crime at the societal level is to make sure people are well-policed. A high catch and conviction rate is more important than long prison sentences. No one, once convicted of even a petty crime, should be released until they can show they are gainfully employed. The government should create work if private industry does not have enough jobs, but also a path from minimally productive government work into better jobs in the private sector.

So work first. A few homeless people do work, but refuse to spend money on housing, or live in a van. Worry about them later. Appropriate jobs should be offered to homeless people. Those who accept jobs (even part time) should be helped into housing. Those who refuse to work under this program should be assessed and sent to rehab or jail. Shirking should be a crime. I see no clause in the U.S. Constitution that says shirking cannot be criminalized. Sure, the ACLU, pseudo-socialists like Sawant, and bleeding-heart liberals disagree. They think people have a right to party all the time, shoplift, mug people, encourage more people to become addicted to fentanyl, and have publicly-funded defense attorneys get them released if they are caught committing a crime.

If you want to help people, help them get used to helping themselves and others. Change the culture. Stop babying adults. Straighten up and fly right.

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