Saturday, January 14, 2006

It's Not Just The Money

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.


Anonymous said...

An abreviated quote from an excellent book I just finished, Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here, I highly recommend reading it.
"And what's the solution of preventing this debacle? Plenty of 'em. The communists have a patent solution they know will work. So have the facists, and the rigid American constitutionalists... and the monarchists- who are certain if we could just resurrect the Kaizer and the Czar and king Alphonso and everybody would be loyal and happy again... Well, gentlemen, I have listened to all your solutions, and I now inform you that I, and I alone,...have the perfect, the inevitable, the only solution, and that is: There is no solution! There will never be a state of society anything like perfect!"
There will always be that small percentage who the system didnt't work for, or who will not follow the program, thats just part of being human. Every policy, or social program being implemented, keep in mind, is an experiment. Thats what I figure it boils down to. If it works better than the previous policy, keep it. If not, get rid of it. But stubborness plays a part in it too, and a politicians inability to ax a program he created can create a situation where ineffective policies are kept to, I don't know, maybe stroke the ego of the politian.
By the way, I've been philosophying about your liberal ghost dance blog, and will email my thoughts on it when I'm finished, it's pretty interesting.

jw said...

You point out a fact long know to Quality Assurance managers: Creating zero failure is impossible.

The process is always a matter of finding out what our failure rate is and then working at continuous improvement. So, the questions to be answered are:

"What failure rate, given our current ability to spend, is the lowest we can acheive?"
"Are we doing better than we were last year?"

In your school system, adding students to the help system is in itself a failure.

It seems to me that social help systems should, reasonably, be managed by engineers with systems training. I've said that before. Sadly, politicians and social service workers would not allow it.

I doubt anyone knows why we have the social problems we have: The question is answerable, but not asked in a way which could provide the answer. It could be that Taguchi has the answer.

DRJ said...

I understand the sentiment behind your statement that you like living in a society that gives second, third, and ninety-seven chances. It makes me feel good, too, but is it effective?

Let's apply this statement to a smaller scale - raising children, for example. In disciplining your children, do you find that when a child refuses to stop certain bad behavior, that giving him/her 97 chances to reform works? Isn't it more likely that the child becomes independently motivated to reform based on some intervening event or cost-benefit analysis?

In the case of the homeless, substance abusers, etc. - isn't it also likely that some intervening event makes them want to reform, as opposed to finally deciding to take that 97th chance? From my perspective, the system should be looking at motivating factors for good, rather than ways to fix what's "broken". It's one of the reasons faith-based initiatives can be very effective with some people.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

drj, I tend to agree that coming up against the wall -- or the cliff, if you prefer -- has a teaching quality of its own. Most of us don't change unless we have to. We mean well, and we resolve to do better, but not until there is some external pressure do we actually change. That pressure can be as simple as keeping score or "shape up or you're fired." This doesn't just apply to children or addicts, but to all of us. Accountability works.

As to giving 97th chances, I chose the number because of a patient of mine who has something over 90 hospital admissions and nights in protective custody because he goes off his meds and/or uses drugs. I don't think each landlord or each boss should give him 97 chances. But as the mental health system is currently constructed, even on the 97th try there will be someone like me to help him find a room, make sure he has access to his pills, give him a list of AA meetings and soup kitchens, and give him a little cheerleading or a stern talking to, whichever seems more appropriate (I do both every day).

We only rescue a few from the flames that far out, but there are some.

Anonymous said...

congratulations on your blog.

I am a recent convert to the ideas of Rawls, who said that the system should provide a maximum level of goodness for the poorest members.

You say (I am putting words in your mouth) "nothing can be done".
Maybe you are right.

But isn't this uncomfortably similar to the morality of the person who does not belief in right or wrong actions.

If we give out guaranteed birth control, we will have less poor to look after, so why will this choice cost "too much".