Thursday, June 01, 2006

Public Housing: Not What It Seems

Public housing, the darling of those who support social welfare, view the government, in undertaking public housing projects, to be humanitarian. This is far from being the case. While one may not realize it, the effects of public housing are deleterious to those that one may not expect: the poor. The real reason that public housing has been built by the government is not to help the poor, far from it. Instead, the government, pressured by special interest groups (who will be explained,) has, like so many of its projects, undertaken the seemingly good-willed public housing program in order to secure votes.

Arguments are frequently made that public housing improves two things: the welfare of the poor, and the well-being and appearance of the neighborhood. We will term the latter “neighborhood effects,” as Milton Friedman has termed them. In dealing with neighborhood effects, it can be said that destroying slums in order to build public housing betters the appearance of the neighborhood, but it does not better the neighborhood’s well-being. Why? Well, let’s first examine what well-being is, in a neighborhood. A low crime rate, and good education, these are two factors that lead to a neighborhood’s well being. Let’s look at each individually, in relation to public housing.

One would think that public housing deters crime. This cannot be further from the truth. In fact, public housing greatly increases crime, by concentrating the number of potential criminals together (as those who live in public housing commonly are), in one housing unit, crime becomes, obviously, more prevalent. Furthermore, public housing actually reduces the amount of housing available, as the amount of housing that has been destroyed in the course of erecting public housing projects has been far larger than the number of housing units constructed. In reducing the number of housing units available, public housing leads to homelessness and over-crowding, both of which contribute to crime for obvious reasons.

Education is also significantly worsened by public housing. “Good” students, those who behave, and work hard at school, often do not come from so called “broken” families. This is an unfortunate but true fact. Therefore, a high concentration of broken families, as there exists in public housing, for reasons that are clear, lead to schools in close proximity to public housing units to be considerably worse off. Indeed, the plight of inner-city schools is visible for all to see. Granted, public housing is not the sole cause for the ineffectiveness of inner city schools, but it does account for a large part of it.

So as a neighborhood’s well-being is clearly not promoted through public housing, what is? Those who are proponents of public housing argue that they help those poor individuals and families who would not otherwise be able to afford decent housing. But if we are interested in the poor’s welfare, why does the government not give the poor cash handouts, for the poor to use at their own accord, instead of using that money to build housing for them? What the government is doing, in building public housing, is paternalistically telling the poor: you should not trust yourselves to spend money correctly, so we will do it for you. This obviously infringes on the individual’s ability to choose. Milton Friedman states of public housing: “It can be justified, if at all, only on grounds of paternalism; that the families being helped “need” housing more than they “need” other things but would themselves either not agree or would spend the money unwisely.” So why shouldn’t the poor be able to spend money, being used on them anyway, as they wish? I am not a proponent of treating the poor without equality, as they should be given the ability to spend money as they deem fit, not the government.

Furthermore, as mentioned above, public housing projects actually destroy more housing than they create, so instead of providing more housing for the poor, public housing displaces many, and leads to severe overcrowding. This overcrowding, of course, is exacerbated by the faulty plumbing, miserable conditions of living in the ghetto, and the too often inability to rise from public housing to better accommodations.

So what is the real reason that public housing is built? A common theme in politics, it is due to powerful lobbying, and, perhaps, unintentionally paternalistic attempts at good will. The lobbying comes from those who own business, property, or interests in areas in which slums exist. They, obviously, would rather see a public housing unit instead of a slum, because this would bolster their business, their property value, or other such things.

Public housing, like many other governmental projects, should not be regarded as “good” because it is the status quo. When taking a look at the evidence, it is clear that public housing does far more harm than good, especially to the poor. My solution would be for the government to subsidize both private companies wishing to build low-cost housing, and economically disadvantaged individuals, not specifically for housing, but for whatever they determine their needs to be.