Down and Out in America: The Origins of Homelessness, by Peter H. Rossi, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 247 pages, $15.95.
Peter Rossi is a brave man. In 1986 Rossi, a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, led a team of researchers in an effort to determine how many homeless people there were in Chicago. He concluded that in the winter of 1986, there were about 2,300 homeless people in Chicago, one-tenth the number claimed by homeless lobbyists in that city. For his honesty, Rossi was intellectually mau-maued by homeless advocates.
Rossi has used his homeless study as the basis for a book that is both valuable and wrongheaded. The most interesting parts are his history of homelessness in America, enabling the reader to compare today's homeless with their counterparts in the 1930s and 1950s. Rossi even explains where the term "Skid Row" comes from. (It derives from Seattle's "Skid Road," the area where logs were dragged into ocean-going barges.) Also useful is an annotated bibliography of every population estimate of America's homeless conducted through 1988.
Rossi is, however, a liberal. Even though he believes that the number of homeless Americans is probably below 250,000, he argues that millions more Americans might become homeless because they earn less than $4,000 a year. Nothing pleases a liberal sociologist more than new groups to spend money on, so Rossi proposes to expand welfare spending by $30 billion annually to prevent homelessness, chiefly through tax-funded grants to anyone who provides shelter to someone over age 22 who earns less than 75 percent of the official poverty rate—a tasty subsidy to parents, graduate students, participants in the underground economy, etc. It's ironic that Rossi was so thoroughly mugged by the homeless lobby, because his "solutions" for homelessness are far more costly than anything the lobby itself has, so far, proposed.
If one ignores his conclusions, there is much that is valuable in Down and Out in America. Like William Julius Wilson, Rossi is an intelligent, honest liberal from whom one can learn even when he is wrong. Down and Out in America is a book that must be read by anyone seriously interested in the problem of American homelessness.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Brief Review".