Be true to your principles, or solve the problem?

Malcolm GladwellI really enjoy reading Malcolm Gladwell‘s work. His approach to looking at problems is fresh and interesting, and he’s able to draw correlations that are not only unusual, but incredibly insightful. I find I’m often struck by the obvious relationship one thing has to another after he’s made it clear. This just happened to me as I was reading an article originally published in The New Yorker and republished in his book “What the Dog Saw.”

The article was about homelessness, specifically the cost of homelessness, both in the humanitarian sense and dollars-and-cents-sense. He explores the notion that many of us have about the homeless: that it’s a problem with a normal distribution (a bell curve) that represents a huge mass in the middle that accounts for most of the problems. Recent studies suggest, however, that homelessness is really what they call a power law distribution that is shaped more like a hockey stick, with a relatively small number of ‘hard core’ homeless that drive the cost. In fact, according to a study done by Dennis Culhane in the 1990’s, more than 80% of people in shelters are in and out very quickly. “In Philadelphia,” Culhane says, “we found that the most common length of time that someone is homeless is one day. The second most common is two days.”

Gladwell points out that when we perceive problems to have a normal distribution, the resulting impression is of something that is too big to fix, so we treat the symptoms instead. But if the problem has a power law distribution, then it’s possible that it’s a big problem caused by a relatively small number of people. In other words, the problem itself could be fixed.

In Denver, this is exactly what they’re trying to do about homelessness. Realizing that they need to get these chronically homeless off the streets (and, subsequently, out of the health care system, which is where they are really costing the rest of us the most), Denver officials have begun giving them apartments. And this approach makes perfect sense economically: it’s far cheaper to pay someone’s rent than to continually pay to for the health care costs associated with them being on the streets. In fact, the article was originally titled “Million Dollar Murray”, a reference to one chronically homeless man in Nevada who cost the state more than a million dollars over ten years of homelessness.

The problem with solving a power law distribution like this is that, while it makes sense economically, it doesn’t seem fair morally. Gladwell says:

“Thousands of people in the Denver area no doubt live day to day, work two or three jobs, and are eminently deserving of a helping hand – and no one offers them the key to a new apartment. When the welfare mom’s time on public assistance runs out, we cut her off. Social benefits are supposed to have some kind of moral justification. We give them to widows and disabled veterans and poor mothers with small children. Giving the homeless guy passed out on the sidewalk an apartment has a different rationale. It’s simply about efficiency.”

“There isn’t enough money to go around, and to try to help everyone a little bit – to observe the principle of universality – isn’t as cost-effective as helping a few people a lot. Being fair, in this case, means providing shelters and soup kitchens, and shelters and soup kitchens don’t solve the problem of homelessness. Our usual moral intuitions are of little use, then, when it comes to a few hard cases. Power-law problems leave us with an unpleasant choice.”

And then he followed up this argument with the sentence that still has me pondering this whole notion, more than two weeks later:

“We can be true to our principles or we can fix the problem. We cannot do both.”

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