I spoke with another social worker yesterday, who mentioned that her political belief was that everyone should have guaranteed birth control, housing, food, and education. I didn’t press her on this – no point, really – but I know that her accompanying belief is that if we would just be willing as a society to pay for this we could do it. And that we should. I did mention offhand that housing projects didn’t seem to have worked out well. She agreed, and countered that perhaps smaller, scattered places would work better.
If it were only a matter of building some housing or passing out some pills, that would be fine. Conservatives rail over the unfairness of confiscatory taxation and grumble about giveaways, and quotes from Ayn Rand with some words in BLOCK CAPITALS are frequent on the right blogosphere, but in the main, we are culturally disposed to taking care of those who cannot care for themselves. Europeans might sniff at our hard-heartedness, and those Americans prone to look at Europe as a model may agree, but we are as generous a people as any, just different.
It's just that we have found that charity is more complicated than popularly supposed. Game Theory refers to that branch of mathematics in which decisions are interactive. (More complete discussion here). The actions of one person influences the actions of another, as in a game. The mathematics of social policy are always complicated. If it were just expensive, we could accept that. Americans pay for expensive things -- individually and collectively -- all the time.
Imagine a town which decides to have an Excellent School System. Evaluating the progress a few years later, it is discovered that 10% of the students are doing badly. Somehow the system "isn't working for them." This town committed to an Excellent School System studies the 10% who aren't making it somehow, identifies a few common themes, and adds some solutions to the system. Some children might have perceptual difficulties; some might be abusing substances; a third group is ill-prepared. Appropriate responses are put in place by the Excellent School System.
Measuring the progress a few years later, a puzzling thing has happened. More than 10% of the students are receiving the new interventions, and there is still a 7% failure rate. Hmm. Intervening in the system did not merely change the behavior of the 10% who were failing, it changed the behavior of some of the 90% as well. Some of those "fell back" into needing interventions.
Well, all right then, the problem was always 20% of the students, not 10, but we just didn't pick that up on the first pass. The evaluators of the Excellent School System study the 20% having the hardest time and reengineer their responses. It turns out that there were other kids having problems with drugs, or perception, or background, and they were just scraping by, always on the verge of failing.
Most people can predict what happens at the next evaluation. Almost 30% of the students are receiving some sort of intervention, and the failure rate is only down to 5%.
Eventually, all students are made to sit through drug education classes, instructions on how to improve their study habits, and testing to see what their learning styles and aptitudes are. But somehow, there are still some failing.
The interventions changed the system. Game theory. Conservatives would say that we have sapped some of the character out of the students, some of the drive and independence. Fear of failure, being challenged, brings out our better selves. Perhaps so. Take whatever theory you want. The important fact to note is that it didn't work, and the system is now different.
So, my social work buddies think we should guarantee housing. When one of the people in the new Guarantos molests a neighbor, what do we do with him? If some woman is selling drugs there, what do we do with her? Do we put them into some sort of lesser Guaranto? We certainly don't want to put them in a better one, or those folks who are tempted to drug or molest, but have being keeping themselves under control, will have incentive to offend. Heck, we don't even want to put the offenders into something as good for the same reason.
So they go someplace worse. What if they screw up there? What if they have kids, who didn't do anything wrong? Do we take them away? And the less people have to lose, of course, the less incentive they have for keeping with the rules.
I'n not advocating any punish 'em all, three-strikes rules for failing at education or at housing. I have seen enough people finally succeed after numerous tries to want to never take that away from anyone. Some drunks do sober up. Some criminals reform. I like living in a culture of second, third, and ninety-seventh chances. I'm not advocating any type of solution (not just now, anyway).
I just despise the mentality that if we just gave more funding to programs X, Y, and Z it would all come right, and the selfish bastards who won't pay up are ruining our society. That kind of simplistic thinking -- not poverty -- is what divides the country.