Helping the Homeless: Lessons from Welfare Reform
Reducing welfare has perhaps been America’s most successful national public policy. Ten years on from 1996 welfare reform bill, 60% of national caseload has been reduced. The reason: “work first” programs and work requirements to maintain benefits.
Previously, social roles had increased decade after decade, but this change in policy has reversed the trend and reduced by millions those who depend on public assistance.
Despite the caution of many concerned and sympathetic observers, including the then senator. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (DN.Y.), the women and children were not found starving on the streets. Education and training, backed by the Liberals, had failed as the first strike to cut welfare but, with the sweeping political changes of 1996, the state-backed people got to work in mass.
Today, despite increase in public spending to reduce homelessness, the numbers keep rising. Between 2017 and 2018, homelessness increased nationwide by 0.3% or 1,834 people. But 67% of homeless people are in the ten states with the highest number of homeless people, according to National Alliance to End Homelessness (NATEH).
In Los Angeles and San Francisco, where homelessness is on the rise 12 percent and 16 percentrespectively, the increase in expenditure seems to have had an opposite effect on the number of homeless people.
Over the past five years, the Seattle metropolitan area has experienced an explosion homelessness, crime and substance abuse. In its 2017 Point-in-Time Homeless Count, as reported in city newspaper, Seattle-King County social services agency All Home found 11,643 people sleeping in tents, cars and emergency shelters. Property crimes there have increased at a rate two and a half times that of Los Angeles and four times that of New York. At the same time, according to Puget Sound Business Journal, the Seattle metro area spends more than $1 billion each year to address homelessness. That’s nearly $100,000 for every homeless man, woman and child in King County.
Well-meaning benevolence seems to have exploded.
What went wrong? Recourse to social services did not work. Only the providers of these services vigorously support them, despite evidence of their powerlessness. Which work so far is a “housing first” version of “work first” programming. Although poorly funded, efforts to move homeless people into permanent housing – skipping transitional opportunities – have shown real success.
Research from Denver, Boston, Seattle and Utah shows significant reductions in homelessness, up to 72 percent in some cases. In New York, each person housed in the program saves taxpayers $10,000 per year. Yet the continued use of social services, transitional housing and shelters accounts for the lion’s share of public spending.
Surprisingly, in housing, as in social assistance, the establishment of work and housing priorities has succeeded while other programs have not. But while some effort has been made to put ‘work first’ in solutions, much like ‘housing first’, funding for both has been minimal. And no effort has been made to combine the two.
In order to analyze if the work would work, here are some statistics on who the homeless are:
—75 percent Almost all of the country’s homeless do not suffer from serious mental illness, leaving a quarter of the population perhaps in need of mental health services. The rest might just go to work.
—38 percent are dependent on alcohol, with 26 percent dependent on drugs.
—About 50,000 ex-convicts enter shelters every year after their release.
—12 percent of the homeless are veterans.
To many people, this would seem like a stubborn populace to convince to work. But experience tells us something different. There is hope for employment for people with substance abuse issues, homeless veterans, ex-offenders, and people with mental illness. Where work was the tool, normal life followed.
For example, a study by the Manhattan Institute found a significant reduction in recidivism of formerly incarcerated people when placed in employment. Work socializes; it provides a ladder for autonomy, acceptable behavior in society, and the means to support oneself. Health benefits and better family life also result from employment.
Unfortunately, as with social assistance before the reform, social services have failed and may have fueled the current rise in homelessness.
Now is the time to reverse course by combining the first two, work and housing, as a solution. We must provide permanent housing and demand work for able-bodied people.
The false assumption that personal barriers prevent success in society has fueled spending on social services for the homeless. But it’s been shown time and time again that if people can work, they will. When obstacles arise, they can be mitigated once the person is employed. And this can happen while the security of a house is assured.
Funds should now be diverted from shelters and other temporary accommodation, as well as social services, to fund this. Merging Housing First and Work First programs as a strategy has great potential to significantly reduce homelessness. No other solution was able to make a dent in the problem.
What do we have to lose?
Peter Cove is the founder of America Works, the nation’s first for-profit company to help welfare recipients find paid work, and the author of “Poor No More.” He worked in municipal poverty programs in New York and Boston in the 1960s and 1970s, and he led efforts to replace government funding of poverty programs with private sector investment. of several million dollars.