All Commentary
Friday, May 1, 1992

Throwing Money at Social Problems

Political scientist James L. Payne lives in Sandpoint, Idaho. His latest book is The Culture of Spending: Why Congress Lives Beyond Our Means.

Otto von Bismarck once said that people fond of either laws or sausages shouldn’t look too closely into how they are made. His advice applies emphatically in today’s media era, where politicians are interested primarily in name recognition and TV coverage, and only secondarily in actual issues. The results, all too often, are political programs that don’t address the problem.

I recently saw a good example of how such unproductive programs begin. Some local citizens concerned about homelessness in our area had called a general meeting to air the problem and possible solutions. It was quite an education listening to the many views.

One woman reported that she had been homeless because she couldn’t find a motel room to rent when she came to town on Labor Day weekend. One of the hobos explained their point of view. They weren’t interested in going into any shelter, he said. They just wanted to be allowed to build their shacks on other people’s land. The deputy sheriff reported that each time the hobo village was destroyed, with the drifters moving on, the local robbery rate declined.

Other witnesses told of battered women needing shelter from abusive situations. Others mentioned youngsters who had run away from home. We also heard reports of families who came to the area looking for work but who had found none, and of other people who were working but whose earnings were insufficient to pay their rent.

As the evening progressed, the group grew disheartened. The audience began to realize that “homelessness” is not a single problem with an obvious solution, but a swift of issues, too many for the mind to grasp. That’s when the thinking turned to government. We need a “comprehensive program,” said speaker after speaker, to deal with this overwhelming problem. A state legislator—who had arrived late—agreed: She declared she was eager to work at the state capital on behalf of such a program.

Welcome to boondoggleland! We had just learned that “homelessness” is an agglomeration of social, moral, and semantic issues. Now, in the name of this broad cliché, a state legislator who knows less than we do is ready to appropriate millions of taxpayer dollars. No wonder so many public policies end in disappointment.


The Voluntary Way

There is an alternative to this wasteful approach. It’s the logical, natural process called voluntarism. It starts with reformers who have broken down complex questions into manageable sub-problems. On the homeless issue, for example, one might develop an arrangement for overflow lodging when motels are full, or another might set up a safe house for battered women. The funding for these projects is raised on a voluntary basis from local donors who are in a position to evaluate the viability of the reformer’s project.

In this system, money isn’t thrown at a problem in the hope that a solution will be found. The process operates the other way around: Until someone has a specific plan, he won’t get support. Leaders can’t just say that they are “concerned.” They have to prove to their friends and neighbors that their solution is workable in order to attract donations and volunteers.

This voluntary problem-solving is already quite common, but we often overlook it. For example, in our community we have a specific solution to one aspect of the homeless problem in the form of the local Gospel Mission. Founded by a lay minister, Corky Kalben, just two years ago, the mission aims at helping homeless men, especially those with alcohol, drug, and employment problems. Corky—a builder of fiberglass boats by trade—volunteered in prison ministry and halfway house situations for many years, and he has a clear vision of how to run a shelter for these men. He believes in stipulating basic rules at the mission (no drugs or alcohol, you must take a shower, and so on), and believes the message of Jesus is the key to rehabilitation. He obtained the bulk of his early funding from one of the local churches that supported his concept, and now that he has demonstrated its viability, he receives donations and in-kind support from many individuals and local groups.

It’s time we learned to address social problems directly, with voluntary, non-governmental methods. Money is getting too tight to keep dumping our policy confusions in the laps of far-off politicians and pretending it’s a solution.

  • Dr. James L. Payne is a research fellow at the Independent Institute and author. He earned his PhD in political science from the University of California at Berkeley, and he has taught political science at a number of universities including Yale University.