A persistent theme of this blog is that progressive social programs supposedly intended to solve societal problems inevitably make the problems worse. Of course, few pay close attention while this happens; and the performance of the journalism profession in reporting on the phenomenon is nothing short of disgraceful. But if you look into this subject enough, you will realize that it is not actually possible for a bureaucracy to solve a major societal problem. To solve the problem would be to undermine the very basis for the existence of the bureaucracy, and to put it at risk of cutbacks or even elimination. Bureaucracies have as their fundamental imperative the need to continue and to grow. Therefore, no problem entrusted to a bureaucracy will ever be solved, nor even substantially ameliorated. In fact, the problem will certainly worsen over time, the better to justify a bigger budget and more staff for the bureaucracy.
Exhibit A for this phenomenon, of course, is the problem of poverty. For a few dozen of my prior posts on that issue, go to this link. When the War on Poverty got going in about 1964, there was essentially no federal spending and no programs and no bureaucracy devoted to the subject. The newly-created official poverty measure found a poverty rate of 15%. Since the population of the country in that year was 192 million, that meant about 29 million people were deemed to be "in poverty." President Lyndon Johnson asserted that poverty would be ended within a generation. We're now well over 50 years into the War on Poverty -- closer to two generations than one. Spending on government "anti-poverty" programs (federal, state and local) has gone from about zero to a current level of over $1.2 trillion per year. The official "poverty rate" has fluctuated within a small range for decades, even as the country's population has nearly doubled. The most recent (2016) official rate is given as 12.7%, which, on a population now at about 325 million, puts some 42.3 million people in poverty -- up by more than 13 million people since the War on Poverty began. $1.2 trillion of "anti-poverty" spending per year, and the number of people said to be "in poverty" only goes up. It is hard to conceive of a bigger disaster. Yet nobody ever gets held to account.
Recently, the progressive movement has turned some of its focus to the problem of "homelessness." Now here we have a problem that is clearly different -- obviously much less complex and intractable than "poverty," and therefore subject to being immediately solved by well-intentioned and well-funded progressive minions. As super-progressive New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said in 2014, shortly after getting elected, "We are simply not going to allow this kind of reality to continue.” After all, homelessness is just an issue of lack of housing. So it's easy: just hire some people, spend some money, build some housing, and presto! you're done. Or at least, that was the fantasy.
If you're a regular reader here, you have already seen a couple of my posts (here and here) reporting on de Blasio's success in the battle against homelessness since he first took office in January 2014. The short summary is that spending to solve homelessness has gone from (an already ridiculously high) $1 billion per year to well over $2 billion per year; while the number of people deemed "homeless" has soared from about 43,000 to 76,000. Good work Bill! "We are simply not going to allow this kind of reality to continue.” The man is completely clueless as to the fundamental dynamics of how bureaucracies work. But then, I guess we already knew that.
Since progressives always move in lockstep, you won't be surprised to find out that the big West Coast Cities (Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle) have in the past couple of years jumped onto the bandwagon of solving homelessness. Daniel Greenfield has a roundup today at Front Page Magazine. If you've read this post so far, you will have no difficulty predicting the results. Indeed, Greenfield's sub-headline gives it all away: "The more we spend, the worse it gets."
First, a little background to help you compare numbers across cities. According to data from HUD reported in December 2017, the number of "homeless" in the entire U.S. was 554,000. On a population of about 325 million, that gives a rate of about 16 homeless per 10,000 of population for the nation. New York City's 76,000 homeless is out of a population of about 8.6 million; so, about 88 per 10,000, or, despite the billions in spending, some four and a half times higher than the national rate. So how are the West Coast guys doing?
First, take Los Angeles. In addition to his post from today linked above, Greenfield had an additional post back in May specifically addressed to homelessness in Los Angeles, titled "The Homeless Hole That Ate Los Angeles." According to that post, back in 2012, LA had a homeless population of some 32,000 (which, on a total population of about 4.0 million, would give a rate of about 80 per 10,000). But then LA set out to fix homelessness for well and for good. The keys were to be a couple of big ballot initiatives put to the voters. In 2016, it was Proposition HHH, a ballot initiative to approve $1.2 billion in funding specifically to build housing for the homeless. And then, in March of this year, Proposition H, an increase in the sales tax of a quarter of a point, with the proceeds to be specifically dedicated to solving the problem of homelessness. As the LA Times put it on March 3, in urging everyone to vote in favor of Proposition H, "Measure H is key to finally ending homelessness in Los Angeles County." Both propositions were approved by the voters. Take that, homelessness!
So how's it going? The latest homeless count in LA is 58,000. That's now 140 per 10,000. They've put New York to shame! But what happened to all that voter-approved money? It disappeared. From Greenfield:
[T]he number of homeless increased faster than the supply of homeless housing. . . . Increasing subsidies to the homeless only increased their number. As usual, government social welfare was generating more of the problem. And, even more predictably, no amount of social services spending was ever enough. The annual shortfall was estimated this year [after taking account of the two prior referendums] at $270 million. The new projected cost hovers at $628 million [annually].
New York has already been down this road, but don't get the idea that Los Angeles has any ability to learn from that experience. I predict that next year they will pony up the $270 million, only to be told the following year by the experts from the bureaucracy that it will cost yet another $300 million per year, and then another and another, and so on and so on.
Seattle? They are a much smaller city, at about 700,000 people. Over the past four years, Seattle has nearly doubled its spending on homeless services, from $39 million to $63 million. Result? The number of homeless has increased some 44% to 5500. 5500 would be about 79 per 10,000 -- just a hair behind New York. Go ahead and spend some more, Seattle; you can catch up!
And finally, San Francisco. You won't be surprised to learn that, even among this super-progressive crowd, they spend the most per capita, and still get (of course) some of the worst results. The population of the city is about 870,000. Annual spending on homelessness runs $279 million -- almost 40% above New York's $2 billion on a per capita basis. And to show for all that spending, they have a homeless population in the latest count of 7499 -- about 86 per 10,000.
The four leading progressive cities set out to show the rest of the country how to solve homelessness with the classic progressive solution of massive spending on a bureaucracy dedicated to fix the problem. In the aggregate, these cities have about 4.4% of the nation's total population (14.2 million out of 325 million). Billions of dollars of incremental spending into the effort, they have doubled (or so) their aggregate homeless populations, and now have some 26.5% of the nation's homeless population (147,000 out of 554,000), about 6 times what would be their pro rata share. Good work, guys! Somehow I don't think that the rest of the country, or the federal government, has anything to learn from you.
I'll close with a quote from that March LA Times editorial, seeking (successfully it appears) to shame the voters into approving the funding to "solve" homelessness:
It's frustrating to watch homeless people living on the streets, as if they were stray animals that no one knew what to do with. Our visceral responses range from "How can I help them?" to "How can I get them to go away?" Here is how you can start to answer those questions: Vote for Measure H on Tuesday. Offered by the Board of Supervisors, the measure would raise the sales tax a quarter of a percent to fund a variety of life-changing services for homeless people on a scale large enough, finally, to make a dent in homelessness.
You wonder how it is possible for people running a major newspaper to be so uninformed.