Blog Ipsa Loquitur

Published on under This Doesn't Add Up

A quick lesson in the irrational economics of social justice:

Matthew Yglesias, writing for Vox, cites a study performed by the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness that found giving homeless people free housing and casework saves tens of thousands of dollars per homeless person.

The region spends $31,000 a year per homeless person on “the salaries of law-enforcement officers to arrest and transport homeless individuals — largely for nonviolent offenses such as trespassing, public intoxication or sleeping in parks — as well as the cost of jail stays, emergency-room visits and hospitalization for medical and psychiatric issues.” By contrast, getting each homeless person a house and a caseworker to supervise their needs would cost about $10,000 per person.

It’s not just Central Florida; this sort of study has been performed with the same findings in North Carolina and Colorado.

In the interest of making sure none of these homeless people receive even a sliver of free help that they might not have earned, it appears we as a society have opted to spend an extra $20,000 per homeless person. The rational choice would be to go for the ounce of prevention, rather than the pound of cure.

Likewise, a study by the Vera Institute for Justice in 2012 charted 40 states’ spending on prisons, per person in prison. Tal Yellin at CNNMoney charted this against those states’ spending per K-12 student, and the result isn’t pretty.

Again, we could spend a lot less money keeping people in jail if we spent more money providing an education that gave kids a real opportunity for bettering themselves. We’re certainly not going to empty every prison in America by throwing more money at schools; however, high school drop outs are subjected to certain socioeconomic forces that send a lot of them to prison. The incarceration rate for 16-24 year old dropouts is 63 times higher than non-dropouts. An education can help kids get out of that pipeline. An underfunded school system simply can’t.