All of us should take affront that people living in the United States and within its laws are being reduced to living on the streets.” So how is this situation being perpetuated, and how should it be addressed?
As we have seen, the various governments’ responses around the country to the homeless issue have been sporadic if not spasmodic. Every once in a while a state or the federal government will set aside fairly large amounts of money in one-time payments, or temporarily open an armory, either to make themselves feel better or to reduce some political heat. But then, the cold hard facts are that the problems continue on virtually as before.
So what we need instead is an institutional response that should greatly reduce this national and even moral problem. My approach is modeled after Milton Friedman’s “negative income tax” proposal, and is as follows, with the amounts of money used only for illustrative purposes:
No one in our country will pay any income taxes on their first $30,000 of earnings from whatever source — not you, me, Bill Gates or anyone else. (This could evolve into a national graduated flat tax, but that is a different issue.)
For those people who earn no money, regardless of the reason, anyone who is at least 18 years of age, a citizen of our country or here legally with a green card will receive a stipend from the federal government in the amount of $15,000 per year — probably broken down into monthly payments of $1,250. However, for every dollar they earn they will lose 50 cents of the stipend. (Accordingly, everyone will have an incentive to earn the extra dollar.) And, importantly enough, all other welfare payments could be abolished, except those for people with truly special needs.
So what about the homeless? The answer is that if each of those people had the equivalent of an ATM account with $1,250 automatically deposited into it each month the private sector would quickly start providing low-cost room and board-style living for each of them, probably at a competitive rate of about $1,000 per month, which would leave the recipients an additional $250 to pay for personal items, clothing, etc.
That would be the program. Of course, the opposing argument is that many of these people would simply throw their money away on alcohol and other drugs, gambling or otherwise be irresponsible. So what about them? The answer is that basically the homeless issue is and should be a local problem overseen by city and county governments. The federal government could and should participate as stated above, and then leave the issue to local control. And then at the local level there should be a triage system to address different groups of the homeless people, as follows:
Some people are temporarily down on their luck, but they both can and want again to function successfully in our society. For those people a temporary financial boost in their ATM accounts would probably be all they would need to get back on their feet.
Another much larger group would need to be screened for mental health, drug and alcohol and other debilitating conditions. Then they would, if necessary, be given access to appropriate assistance, to the degree that if they needed a conservatorship or a program of drug rehabilitation, that would be mandated.
The final group would be comprised of those who simply want to continue living that type of life — or at least think they do. Those people would be provided places to live such as at one of these room-and-board facilities, or at various government developmental centers, or even some of the presently lightly used reserve military facilities or the like. As we all agree, no one in our society should be arrested for “camping” or trespassing on public property unless they have a place to live with a roof over their heads. But this system would provide those places. Then, once that system is in place, the police could resume their enforcement of local ordinances that prohibit things like littering and camping, urinating or defecating in public, etc. And a day or three in jail would help convince some of them to change habits.
Of course, there are always complications involved in any system like this, such as extra provisions being made for children and the differences in the costs of living in different parts of our country. But those issues can be addressed locally without making the approach too complicated.
Accordingly, with the publication of this column, I am reaching out to all people of good will in our society, including the legal, medical, religious and social communities. In that regard, I openly say that I don’t purport to have all of the answers, but please join me in actively trying to find some by joining me in sending these ideas to our elected representatives. Because, as it now exists, the homeless problem is untenable and is an insult to who we are a people. And it calls for an institutional response to resolve it.