Even as a homeless fellow was using aisle 10 of a San Francisco’s Safeway as an open sewer last weekend, the thinking in Sacramento and city halls across California remained mired in the “we need more money” mindset. Of course increased outlays will only make matters worse.
California freely spends other people’s money on the homeless, just as anyone would expect a Democrat-dominated state to do. Consider some recent headlines:
- “California Unleashes Hundreds of Millions in Emergency Aid for Cities and Counties to Fight Homelessness,” office of Gov. Gavin Newsom
- “Governor: More Federal Spending on Housing Will Fix California’s Homeless Epidemic,” California Globe
- “Homeless-related Violence Continues as More Money is Thrown at Housing,” California Globe
- “L.A. Homeless Crisis: Spend $780 Million — INCREASE Homelessness by 33%,” California Political Review
- “LA Is Spending Over $1 Billion to House the Homeless. It’s Failing,” Reason TV
- “San Jose leaders approve mayor’s spending plan to help end homelessness, add affordable housing,” ABC 7 News, Bay Area
- “Homeless hearing on Skid Row: Millions spent, but no improvement, officials say,” ABC 7 News, Los Angeles
The lesson about spending should have been learned more than 50 years ago, when Sargent Shriver was waging President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. When asked why the program was failing to reach its goal, he said Washington just hadn’t spent enough. Even the most reactionary politicians and stubborn government functionaries should have realized at that moment that generous spending wasn’t the answer.
Despite outlays of $25 trillion over a little more than a half-century, poverty remains at roughly the same place it was in 1964, when Johnson said during his State of the Union address his administration was declaring an “unconditional war.” More to the point, the poverty rate had been falling consistently for years but began to virtually flatline at roughly the same time Johnson made his announcement. It has since bounced between 11.1% and 15.3%.
Economists Lowell E. Gallaway and Daniel G. Garrett found that even small gains in this war are expensive. Over the first 11 years following Johnson’s declaration of war, “every 1 percentage point fall in the poverty rate” needed “a 50-percentage point increase in real public aid.” Yet in the 11 years preceding the new program, a single point decrease in the poverty rate needed no more than “a 10 percentage point increase in public aid.”
California’s festering experience with homelessness is a similar story. Despite all the spending, and the pleas and plans for additional money, homelessness has spiked 30% since 2017 in San Francisco, grew 16% in the city of Los Angeles and 12% in the county over 2018, and swelled 42% in San Jose over two years. In Alameda County, the number of homeless has jumped 43% since 2017. The homeless population has been climbing sharply in Sacramento, and Santa Clara and Kern counties, as well.
Even Sonoma County, known for its wines, not urban problems, has a mile-long tent city.
The misery has reached the point that nearly half of the nation’s homeless who sleep on the streets and in other public places are in California.
None can doubt homelessness in California is a genuine crisis. Human urine and feces litter San Francisco streets (and at least one Safeway aisle), and diseases that plagued man during the Medieval period, as well running-wild rats and accumulating trash, are exhausting Los Angeles. Violence has reached a point that even veterans of the street haven’t seen before.
It’s truly an understatement when the the Acton Institute says that “government policies to reduce homelessness may have made the situation worse.” California enables and encourages homelessness through an assortment of questionable measures. Public urination and defecation are not prosecuted (and by implication are approved of); taking over public spaces is tolerated, as is open drug use; laws stand between the mentally ill homeless and treatment; and a regulatory framework restricts the supply of desperately needed new housing.
Meanwhile, a homeless-industrial complex stands firmly in the way of progress. It’s made up of government bureaucracies, and homeless advocacy groups, the more radical of which regard homeless humans as an endangered species that cannot be removed from its natural habitat. They are relentless in blocking ideas and plans that would help their fellow man.
Allan Brownfeld, an author and former White House and congressional aide, says the greatest beneficiaries of the Johnson program have not been the intended targets but the bureaucracies who were charged to care for the welfare of others.
“In the so-called ‘War On Poverty,’ for example, programs were not designed to give money to the poor, whatever the merits of that would have been, but, instead, to give money to people who were to provide ‘services’ to the poor,” he said. “The result has been that the only poverty such legislation corrected was that of its own employees.”
Though we’ve had decades to learn from the mistakes, nothing has changed. To borrow Brownfeld’s words from the late 1970s, “thousands of well-organized individuals and groups have a vested interest in the continuation of many otherwise useless and costly programs.”
Expenditures on the homeless aren’t effective in part because the funds become a magnet and crutch for the homeless. Injudicious spending encourages further dependence.
The more-spending mindset also more often than not misallocates funds, a fact not lost on the public paying the bills. A poll of 901 Los Angeles County voters released this fall found that two-thirds believe that spending on behalf of the homeless is done “very ineffectively” (41%) or “somewhat ineffectively” (25%).
None of this is to say public funds should never be used to reduce homelessness. As much as we would like for that to be true, it’s not possible. But instead of feeding government bureaucracies with taxpayers’ money, public funds ought to be used to supplement the private programs that have successfully helped the homeless off the streets and into proper housing.
We further suggest that policymakers around the state take a look at San Diego County, where the homeless population has actually fallen. Officials there have taken an almost fully opposite approach to that of San Francisco, and the shift in thinking and in acting is paying off.
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