Unsentimental Compassion


The Homeless, By Christopher Jencks, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 122 pages, $17.95

Northwestern University sociologist Christopher Jencks has always been an interesting, iconoclastic liberal. In the 1960s, he was the left's leading advocate for school choice, championing ideas very similar to those promoted 20 years later by John Chubb and Terry Moe. Over the past two decades, Jencks has shifted his interests from education to welfare, but his intellectual independence and his incisive, powerful style remain unchanged.

Now Jencks directs his attention to homelessness, drawing on resources unavailable to most writers. A Rockefeller Foundation grant enabled a research assistant to spend "hundreds of hours at his computer terminal analyzing Census surveys." And the Russell Sage Foundation not only gave Jencks a one-year fellowship but even sponsored a conference at which various experts gave Jencks advice about his manuscript.

These grants, and his independent mind, ensure that Jencks has a fresh take on homelessness. While liberals will be comforted by Jencks's conclusion–that the government should spend a great deal of money on the homeless–they are less likely to be soothed by the substance of The Homeless. In closely scrutinizing the available data, Jencks neatly demolishes nearly every argument made by homeless advocates.

Here are some of the claims refuted by Jencks:

? America is suffering from an epidemic of homelessness, with nearly 3 million homeless people on the streets. Jencks documents that homeless advocate Mitch Snyder made up his numbers and cites a Nightline interview in which Snyder told Ted Koppel that his estimates of millions of homeless people "have no meaning, no value."

Using Census Bureau data and studies by the Urban Institute and the Columbia University School of Social Work, Jencks estimates that America had about 125,000 homeless people in 1980 and between 300,000 and 400,000 homeless people in 1987. Since 1987, Jencks says, the number of homeless people has either stayed constant or declined slightly. "Estimates above 500,000," Jencks says, "are considerably harder to reconcile with the available evidence unless one believes that the `invisible' homeless are very numerous indeed."

? The homeless are people just like you and me who happen to have a streak of bad luck. No, they're not, Jencks argues. Homeless people are more likely to be male, single, alcoholic, drug-addicted, and black, and more likely to have limited job skills, than the population as a whole. Homeless people are also more likely to have come from troubled families and to have spent some time in their childhood with foster parents. "If bad luck were the main cause of homelessness," Jencks writes, "most people would be homeless occasionally, but few would be homeless for long. In reality, most people are never homeless, a sizeable number are homeless briefly, and a few are homeless for long periods."

"The homeless are indeed just like you and me in most respects," adds Jencks. "But so are saints and serial killers." Ignoring the differences between homeless people and Americans who have homes, he suggests, "is to substitute sentimentality for compassion."

? Reagan administration budget cutters caused the rise in homelessness in the early 1980s by slashing low-income housing programs. Jencks freely admits that housing subsidies rose, not fell, during the Reagan administration; all the Reaganites did was to slow the rate of increase in spending for these programs. "The slow but steady growth of low-income housing subsidies under Presidents Reagan and Bush was one of the few liberal success stories in a generally conservative era," Jencks writes. "Federal outlays for low-income housing rose faster than outlays for either social security or defense."

It is only in the last chapter of The Homeless that Jencks, having shown the fallaciousness of most of the arguments put forth by homeless advocates, joins his liberal colleagues in calling for more tax dollars to end homelessness. He suggests that perhaps as much as $18 billion each year might be necessary to ensure that the homeless have shelters and jobs.

Consider the most common types of homeless people: single mothers and their children, and childless adult males. Workfare is not an effective solution for single mothers, Jencks argues, because unless a job pays at least $7.00 an hour, a single parent won't be able to afford day care, transportation, or work clothes. So he feels the government has to subsidize rents, day-care fees, food purchases, and health insurance for these mothers until they are able to establish themselves in the work force.

As for underclass men, Jencks says their chief problem is the inability to find steady work, so he proposes that the government create large numbers of cubicle hotels, establishments consisting of many small, windowless rooms. To fill these hotels, the government would also sponsor day-labor markets in which private employers could hire homeless people for a day. If there weren't enough private-sector jobs available, then the government would offer jobs, paying with vouchers redeemable for a cubicle and three cheap meals a day in return for doing about four hours of work. More work could earn more vouchers that could be used for better food or cashed in for an apartment. Ultimately, homeless men could build good work records that would prepare them for private-sector employment.

These ideas are interesting but fundamentally flawed. Jencks, for instance, never discusses the chief obstacle to federal jobs programs: public-sector unions. These unions, unlike their private-sector counterparts, are still powerful, and they will do everything they can to guarantee that any government jobs for the homeless are marginal, trivial, and demeaning. While Jencks's solution might be better than existing welfare programs, it is neither practical nor attainable.

Jencks argues that job programs are necessary because, while few Americans feel that the government should give everyone who asks food and housing, "most of us do feel an obligation to help people who cannot help themselves or are trying to do so and simply need an opportunity." While this is certainly true, the natural compassion of most Americans is deadened every time a healthy stranger thrusts a cup in their face and demands money or a politician calls for boosting taxes to help the homeless. As Marvin Olasky has shown, church-based groups do a much better job than government agencies in helping the homeless become responsible and productive. But Jencks conspicuously ignores the role religious groups and other private associations play in fighting poverty and homelessness.

While Jencks's conclusions do not stray far from liberal orthodoxy, his analysis of the nature and persistence of homelessness is fresh and interesting. Jencks does a great service in showing that many debating points used by homeless advocates to advance their agenda are either untrue or misleading. The Homeless won't end the debate about homelessness, but it could very well reshape it.

Contributing Editor Martin Morse Wooster is the author of Angry Classrooms, Vacant Minds (Pacific Research Institute).