Monday, February 20, 2006

Efficiency vs. Fairness

Efficiency vs. Fairness

One of the tough tradeoffs we're asked to make is efficiency versus fairness.

Malcolm Gladwell's latest article for the New Yorker makes the point that homelessness, like many other problems, follows a power-curve distribution, rather than a normal distribution.

In other words, instead of a bell curve, which indicates that we should focus on helping the fat part of the curve, most of the costs and benefits of treating homelessness comes from focusing on a very small number of hard-core homeless.
Culhane’s database suggested that New York City had a quarter of a million
people who were homeless at some point in the previous half decade —which was a
surprisingly high number. But only about twenty-five hundred were chronically
homeless.

It turns out, furthermore, that this group costs the health-care and
social-services systems far more than anyone had ever anticipated. Culhane
estimates that in New York at least sixty-two million dollars was being spent
annually to shelter just those twenty-five hundred hard-core homeless.

In fact, these facts suggest that it would be far cheaper to simply *give* free apartments to the hardcore homeless, than to run our system of soup kitchens and emergency care.

The problem is that even though this solution is more efficient, it doesn't seem fair.

Why should the worst offenders get the best treatment?

I'm torn, because fairness is a value that I hold very dear. Most Americans have no problem with people making obscene quantities of money, as long as it is done fairly. It's the cheaters that we hate.

And in some sense, the most efficient solution to the homeless problem actually rewards the "cheaters."

What do you think?

6 comments:

TK said...

I believe that most chronic homeless individuals fall into one of two categories:

1. The want to be homeless
2. They can't help themselves mentally /physically

In either of these cases, giving away a house would not help them or us.

Chris said...

Gladwell agrees with you TK. But because of the costs of the social and medical services that the hardcore homeless consume, it's cheaper to house them in free apartments and have caseworkers babysit them.

The alternative is summary execution, but that's probably not going to happen!

gmlk said...

Do these people really win? Than maybe you should be looking at you definition of winning because somethings is wrong with it.

Be pragmatic, not idealistic: Go with what works.

Fairness is one of the things no king can afford to have in abundance.

TK said...

I suppose we could ship them all off to Iraq and let them wonder the streets of Tiqrit.

meow said...

Hey TK,

I don't think being a homeless person is as simple as not being able to help themselves mentally or physically, or simply wanting to be homeless.

Part of being healthy, in my belief, is having a healthy support network. Furthermore, in this current type of America, I think another type of being healthy is being associated with those who have a decent income.

How do we re-integrate these homeless people into normal society? Even if somehow homeless people all gained marketable skills and began to make some livable income, I believe that many problems will continue to follow them.

We need to give these people not only a broad social network in terms of friends and acquaintances with financial capability, we also need to give these people a "family" in the sense of people who care and provide care even more deeply than friends often would.

A normal person deprived of these things can fall in many ways, not just financially. Here is a time when I don't think you can simply tackle one problem at a time, because they are interconnected: a psycho-socio-financial kind of thing.

But yes, there are also those who have physical or mental difficulties, and with a lack of a dedicated support network, I do not believe they have reasonable chances to escape their situation.

Even after those neurotypical homeless persons escape their immediate impoverished state and begin to earn a livable income, their next generation will have to face the issues of growing up in poverty and possibly in oddly distributed neighborhoods (in terms of income or race or violence).

If I got into some financial difficulties (i.e., perhaps I just graduated HS and need some cash for college to get a jump-start in life, or I need some money for medical purposes), I would have a support network that can help me out. These people don't have that.

And having a homeless population support each other is a step, yes, but it's not the same thing as having a support network that is financially capable and not dealing with a huge host of problems themselves. And it's also not the same thing as having that close "family" relationship I was talking about.

Aaron said...

Hey TK,

I don't think being a homeless person is as simple as not being able to help themselves mentally or physically, or simply wanting to be homeless.

Part of being healthy, in my belief, is having a healthy support network. Furthermore, in this current type of America, I think another type of being healthy is being associated with those who have a decent income.

How do we re-integrate these homeless people into normal society? Even if somehow homeless people all gained marketable skills and began to make some livable income, I believe that many problems will continue to follow them.

We need to give these people not only a broad social network in terms of friends and acquaintances with financial capability, we also need to give these people a "family" in the sense of people who care and provide care even more deeply than friends often would.

A normal person deprived of these things can fall in many ways, not just financially. Here is a time when I don't think you can simply tackle one problem at a time, because they are interconnected: a psycho-socio-financial kind of thing.

But yes, there are also those who have physical or mental difficulties, and with a lack of a dedicated support network, I do not believe they have reasonable chances to escape their situation.

Even after those neurotypical homeless persons escape their immediate impoverished state and begin to earn a livable income, their next generation will have to face the issues of growing up in poverty and possibly in oddly distributed neighborhoods (in terms of income or race or violence).

If I got into some financial difficulties (i.e., perhaps I just graduated HS and need some cash for college to get a jump-start in life, or I need some money for medical purposes), I would have a support network that can help me out. These people don't have that.

And having a homeless population support each other is a step, yes, but it's not the same thing as having a support network that is financially capable and not dealing with a huge host of problems themselves. And it's also not the same thing as having that close "family" relationship I was talking about.