Homelessness After Prison or Jail: Housing First

Criminal justice reform offers ideas to housing policy; perhaps housing can return the favor.

Lowry’s posting suggested using the criminal justice notion of swift, certain and fair punishment to minimize evictions from public housing.   What about using the homelessness-prevention notion of “Housing First” in the criminal justice context?

It’s been clear for years that requiring homeless people to subdue their mental illness or kick their drug habits or otherwise become model citizens before being sheltered failed utterly to reduce their misbehavior but succeeded splendidly in increasing the duration of their exposure to the elements.  What a surprise: without a roof under which to sleep or a safe place to store one’s stuff, other life changes become damn near impossible.

The same logic should apply to any program of reentry from prison or jail: before discharging a prisoner, corrections officials should make sure that s/he has a place to live, and provide one (albeit minimal) if not.  In other words, treat people who are homeless because they’ve been locked up the same as people who are homeless for any other reason.  This means recognizing that, without a stable place to live, staying out of trouble with the law becomes one of those damn near impossible life changes.  And that’s without even considering the people incarcerated precisely because they’re homeless—because “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

It’s costly to provide housing.  But just as scholars and practitioners finally figured out that it was cheaper to house people than to keep shuttling them between the streets and the emergency rooms, I suspect we’ll soon find that it’s cheaper to house those who’ve made it out of the criminal justice system than it is to keep sending them back in.


With all its problems, New York is a well-run city that keeps coming up with really creative public policy. My favorite is the dog program that allows pooches off-leash in the big parks from 9PM to 9AM: not to mention happier dogs, this populates the parks in the evening, and lets you run your dog in the morning before work so he doesn’t bark during the day and bother the neighbors.

We woke up to a less-than-historic but still meaningful (6″) snowstorm in New York wondering what it would be like to be out and about. Well, the city has both improved plow management and put itself on line for oversight by citizens with this neat implementation of GIS and real-time plow tracking. Nice.

Malpractice with chalk on our sleeves

Bob Frank opens his reflections on teaching economics with a discouraging examination of how badly we get our students to understand the really wonderful content of his discipline. Why do educated people think it makes them appear witty to repeat a dumb bromide like “economists know the price of everything and the value of nothing”?   Statistics is in a similar position (“there are lies, damn lies, and statistics”).  This kind of joke, based in willful ignorance, is diagnostic of an affective failure, not an intellectual one.  Students are afraid of this material, not just bored, as something being done to them that will make them worse people in some way, against which they need to defend themselves.  How many people loved their intro stats course, and still remember the eye-opening realization that they had acquired powerful tools with which to understand and improve a complicated, random, changing world?

Statistics and economics university departments are also similar in being tasked with “service” courses for students in other majors and general education introductions, as well as professional apprenticeships for people whose careers will be in creating new methods in the disciplines themselves. As a consumer of the former service–those introductory courses are an input to my teaching production function–I often have occasion to weep, gnash my teeth, and rend my academic regalia, even though I am only hoping for student command of the few big ideas Frank claims should constitute the entire curriculum of an introductory course.  But as a disciple of Deming, I discount absolute-scale measures and prefer to manage on the derivative: no matter where we are now, could things be [even] better? how? Continue reading “Malpractice with chalk on our sleeves”

Non-Furloughed Federal Employees Are Not Being Paid

An important factual correction. Many people believe that “only” the 800,000 federal employees who are furloughed are not being paid. That’s wrong.

FBI agents working kidnapping cases are not being paid. The Capitol Police who just risked their lives to protect members of Congress are not being paid. Forest Service personnel who are fighting wildfires are not being paid.

Over 2 million federal employees are doing their jobs for free at the moment. How long would you do that? How long could you afford to? Would your creditors accept a promise that someday the House of Representatives will act and then you will be able to pay your rent, your utility bill and your credit card bill?

It’s public service indeed to persist in one’s duties under these conditions.

Public school funding: perhaps the public could help out?

I hold forth on/as the Nonprofiteer on the idiocy of our debating who should pay for public schools, and the extreme idiocy of our thinking it swell that the cradle of a democratic society should be controlled by individuals whom nobody elected.

Poverty, Meet Cash Transfers

In my guise as The Nonprofiteer, I suggest that the solution to poverty might be money.

dorothea lange depression era photographs 13

Alert the media.  No, really.

Fogey-Filled Faculties are a Barrier to Diversity

The main problem with older faculty who hang on too long is that they impede the diversification of the faculty

In today’s economy, is there any worse policy than guaranteeing an employee the same job for 40-plus years, even if he or she meets few of the organization’s needs and costs a lot in the bargain?

Those are the words of Mark Bauerlein, who thinks that tenure locks universities into having too many codgers around who teach subjects that few people care about anymore. For example, where will a university language department find the resources to respond to the rise of China if all its salary dollars are locked up in 75-year old professors who — between frequent naps — teach the few students today who wish to major in French?

This is not an issue we generally face in medical schools, where tenure is rarely granted and means little when it is. Massive salary cuts, even down to a salary of zero, are possible for unproductive tenured faculty in academic medicine (As we say in the business “All that is really tenured is your title”). A concentration of tenured older faculty may however be a significant influence on the fate of a school of arts and sciences, education or the like. But I am worry about that for a reason different than the one Bauerlein cites.

Bauerlein doesn’t convince me that undergraduates are worse off having a course taught to them by, say, a 70-year old professor who could retire but teaches for the love of it, versus, say a stressed out 30-year old assistant professor with two young kids who knows that his upcoming tenure decision will be made based mainly on everything but the quality of his instruction. However, the students and their university may be worse off on the diversity front when the faculty is dominated by Methusalehs.

The critical demographic fact about professors who are now in their 60s, 70s and 80s is that in virtually every field, they are overwhelmingly white men. Meanwhile, the current generation of graduate and medical students who will soon be entering the academic job market has a much higher percentage of women and people of color. If you want to diversify your faculty, the time to go fishing is right now while the lake is stocked.

But you can’t bring in these exciting, diverse young people if most of your resources are tied up in old white guys with high salaries. The decision to get rid of the retirement age, whatever its virtues in other respects, was a decision to help older white male professors at the expense of younger women and minority would-be professors.

It may be unfashionable to say this, but the situation is also unfair to young white male would-be professors, whose generation is often expected to bear the entire burden of reducing the over-representation of white men in the academy. That’s a cost that should fall on the old boys who have enjoyed decades of privilege rather than some 27 year old who got his degree in a much more gender and racially balanced world.

Why Debates About Public Debt Are Often Unproductive

What we really argue about when we argue about government debt

In the past few years, there have been countless op-ed pieces and spirited debates about the level of government debt in the U.S. and in the Eurozone, whether it is a problem, and what to do about it. But rarely does it seem that anyone changes their mind as a result of all this arguing. Indeed, many people walk away from debates about government debt frustrated or even hopping mad.

My experience as a marriage counselor taught me that for a discussion of a disagreement to be productive, the parties have to have a shared understanding of what is being debated. If a husband thinks a marital debate is about leaving the toliet seat up or not, and the wife thinks it is about why her husband never listens to, appreciates or loves her the way he should, expect fireworks and frustration. If you are in an argument that you think is about government debt and it’s going nowhere, it may be because the person you are debating isn’t really arguing about the current level of government debt. Rather, they are arguing about the size of government.

If you get into a debate that is ostensibly about the level of government debt, try the following tactic (or try it on yourself in your own mind): If your opponent says that government debt is too high and we therefore need to cut public spending, ask whether s/he has EVER favored under ANY economic conditions a nice, fat increase in public spending. If you are debating someone who says that government debt is no big deal and that we should be increasing public spending, ask if s/he has EVER favored under ANY economics conditions a big, fat cut in public spending. You are going to get a no answer most of the time; maybe almost all the time.

Why does this matter? If you think an argument is about public debt per se, but to the other person it’s really about the size of government, you are going to waste time hauling out debt data from Estonia and Swaziland and the U.S. Great Depression and whatnot that you think will advance the discussion. But it won’t, because the other person doesn’t care about debt really, they just believe government is too big or too small, and any debt-related data will be attended to only to the extent it supports that stance. Maybe you are in the same boat when you argue about debt, only caring about it as a proxy for what really matters to you: the size of government.

Is that wrong? No, it’s just frustrating when you are arguing about one thing and the other person is arguing about something else (or, when BOTH of you are actually arguing about something other than what on the face of it you think you are arguing about). The solution?: Drop the charade and get down to business. How big government should be is an essential political argument for the members of a society to have, so why not just have it up front? Such a debate will be more productive (and honest) if it isn’t filtered through the Kabuki Theater of excel charts on public debt.

What Detroit means

The first thing I thought about Detroit is that the state’s appointment of a receiver demonstrated the Republican governor’s profound indifference to the democratic process of a Democratic city, not to mention a white governor’s profound indifference to a black city.   This may be true, but it’s also true that Detroit’s finances are such a catastrophe that, like New York in the 1970s, it seems to need an outsider to get its house in order. It helps that the trustee is African-American, though not very much: even temporary government without the consent of the governed should cause us alarm.

The second thing I thought about Detroit is that selling off the collection of the Detroit Institute of Art, which the trustee estimates would be sufficient to retire all of the city’s debt, is the best of a number of bad options. Museums nationwide are hyperventilating at the prospect, but they also think it’s sensible to keep on hand huge numbers of items that no one ever sees.  I don’t quarrel with the need to have a deep collection for research purposes, but I also don’t see why it’s considered bad form verging on unethical to sell the parts of the collection you’re not using in public to sustain the parts of the collection you ARE using in public, and at the same time not coincidentally making the sold pieces available to the public, albeit in a different location.

If there had been a Great Fire of Detroit, and the whole city destroyed, no one would argue that recreating the city’s art collection should take priority over food and shelter for the city’s people.  The years of financial mismanagement have incinerated Detroit just as surely as a physical fire; why shouldn’t we pay more attention to basic needs than to cultural institutions?

And isn’t the whole function of assets to provide financial security when income doesn’t suffice? Again, I wonder about the racial composition of those who champion the inviolability of the collection as against the racial composition of those who think it might be necessary to dispose of it. The state’s Attorney General has opined that the city may not sell them because they’re held in trust for the citizens.  But “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government,” and I don’t notice anyone’s raising a ruckus about the loss of that part of our patrimony.

The third thing I thought about Detroit is that the bondholders’ interests are being given absolute priority over the interests of current and former employees, whose pensions are at stake. This is the case in Illinois as well, where at least some portion of the pension “crisis” could be solved by refinancing the debt and stretching out repayment but where that solution is not even considered because the bondholders don’t like it. I understand the value of the municipal bond market to cities’ ability to expand infrastructure but municipal bond investors are investors and should be prepared to accept some pain when they toss their dollars into what’s obviously a money pit.

And the fourth thing I thought about Detroit is that it’s Americans’ closest analogue to what’s casually referred to as “the European debt crisis,”  throughout which salvaging the Euro has meant satisfying bondholders at the expense of people who’d like to work or collect their pensions.   Very few commentators seem aware that the real crisis is one of self-government (or its destruction), or that the Germans have managed to do through economics what they couldn’t do through war, that is, run Europe.  When externally-imposed austerity hit Greece, all I could remember was the bumper sticker from the era of the junta: “Greece: Democracy born 508 BC, died 1967 AD.”  Or, this time around, “reborn 1974, killed again 2011 or -12 A.D.”  As the saying goes, same s**t, different day.

Back to Detroit: if I were trustee, I’d sell off DIA’s assets in a heartbeat and use the proceeds to protect employee pensions. If there was anything left for the bondholders, fine; if not, too bad: it’s the pensioners who paid their share and are entitled to what they were promised. Even after years of trashing public employee unions (brought to you by the Heritage Foundation and other fronts for wealthy people who don’t like to pay taxes or see working people make reasonable money), there must be some court somewhere willing to recognize that the obligation of contracts shall not be impaired.

Of course, I would never be chosen trustee, but that’s not the point. The point is, my solution is what would happen if Detroit were still governed by its people. Detroit: Democracy died 2013 A.D.

Reflections on Deinstitutionalization

Harold Pollack offers an acute analysis of the effect of deinstitutionalization in his latest Washington Post piece. Many commentators have pronounced the policy a blanket success or a complete failure, but as Harold points out, it’s more complex than that:

On the whole, deinstitutionalization improved the lives of millions of Americans living with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) — albeit with many exceptions. These policies allowed people to live with proper support, on a human scale, within their own communities. Second, deinstitutionalization was far less successful in serving the needs of Americans suffering from severe mental illness (SMI) — again, with many exceptions.

The vision of the community mental health movement was that institutionalized individuals would be moved to the least restrictive possible residential setting. They would prosper, and the rest of society, by having more regular contact with them, would become less fearful and stigmatizing. This happened some of the time, but as Harold argues it was more common for people I/DD. In contrast, people with SMI were more likely to end up with marginal or no housing and few needed few support services.

I agree with his analysis, but would add one gloss about the standard by which we judge the effects of deinstitutionalization on people with SMI. The heartbreaking sight of a raggedly-dressed man with schizophrenia screaming at shadows on a windy street corner is not by itself proof that deinstitutionalization was bad policy. Year after year in place after place, government audits and investigative journalism reports found widespread abuse, cruelty and inhumanity in state mental hospitals.

If we assume that the pitiable man with schizophrenia on the corner would be in a high-quality, safe, well-staffed state mental hospital if only the country hadn’t deinstitutionalized, we are inventing a past that rarely existed. Granted, it may bother the rest of us more that someone is sleeping in their own waste on the street than when the same thing happens in a back ward of an institution, but that’s because only in the former case do we have to look at such suffering, not because the person themselves is necessarily worse off.