A Philosopher's Blog

Sending the Homeless Home

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on August 9, 2013
English: Homeless man in New York 2008, Credit...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the United States, the individual states vary considerably in terms of the welfare systems they offer. As might be imagined, word gets around regarding the states with the “best” programs and these states tend to attract larger numbers of homeless people seeking to avail themselves of the welfare. One of my friends, who worked as a police officer in Maine, asked a homeless person why he came all the way to Maine. His answer was “all the free stuff.”

From the standpoint of the homeless, this migration is a smart move. To use the obvious analogy, just as our ancestors left areas of lean hunting and gathering for better areas, the modern nomads are leaving areas of leaner welfare for areas that provide more free stuff.

As might be imagined, many people in the states that attract large numbers of homeless people are concerned about the drain on the resources of their states as well as the various problems that arise with an increased homeless population.

Some people, who are more liberal minded, have put forth the idea that the states should establish a common level of welfare and social programs, thus distributing the cost of welfare by removing the motivation to migrate to richer gathering grounds. As might be guessed, the states that have the lower level of welfare are not particularly inclined to increase their welfare spending—either because of financial difficulties or political ideology (or both).

Some states have hit on the idea of encouraging the migration of the homeless back to their home states. Hawaii recently created a $100,000 fund for its “return-to-home” program that is intended to reduce the population using its welfare system. The idea is that homeless people would be transported (at the state’s expense) by ship or plane back to where they came from (or, at least, some state other than Hawaii).

The main argument for this is financial: while transporting the homeless will have an initial cost, the claim is that this will be recouped by the savings arising by not having the person utilizing the state’s welfare system.

A financial objection to this is that the cost of running the program will exceed the savings. After all, it is not just a matter of buying a homeless person a ticket—there would need to be the usual bureaucracy to make all this happen. There is also the obvious concern that people would come to Hawaii knowing that they would be guaranteed a trip home at the taxpayers’ expense—this is a rather obvious potential unintended consequence.

A non-financial concern is that compelling American citizens to leave a state without their consent would seem to be legally problematic. That is, the state cannot simply round up the homeless and load them onto a ship bound for California. There are, of course, ways that this could be worked around and laws could be passed to allow just that to occur. However, as it stands, the state would have to rely on people voluntarily choosing to leave. The problem is that if people are there for the welfare, the promise of a free trip out of the state would probably not be appealing. This is not to say that some people would not take this option, but it seems unlikely that it would result in a significant purge of the homeless.

There is also to moral concern regarding the ethics of addressing the homeless problem by shipping homeless people elsewhere. In addition to the initial moral concern about shipping people out of the state, there is also the concern regarding where the people will be sent. After all, it hardly seems right for Hawaii to try to “solve” its problem by shipping homeless people to some other state or states. To use an analogy, this seems like a parent who “solves” the problem of the expense of taking care of his children by shipping them off to another relative. This hardly seems right for the children or the relatives.

Naturally, a general argument can be made against welfare.  By arguing that the relation between the state and the homeless is such that there is no obligation to provide them with welfare, it could be contended that the solution to the homeless problem is to simply stop providing welfare to them (or to severely reduce it). This would “solve” the problem in that even if the homeless elected to remain in a state, they would receive nothing. While this option has been proposed, it certainly seems to be a wicked thing to do—at least in regards to those who are homeless through no fault of their own.  Also, this “solution” would simply move the problem—the homeless would presumably leave the state with no or little welfare for a state with a “better” system, thus burdening this state. If all the states elected to cease to provide welfare, the migration would presumably stop, but the moral price of an entire nation turning its back on the homeless would be high.


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6 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on August 9, 2013 at 9:33 am

    The cost of feeding and sheltering the homeless is trivial. I suspect what is really driving this is that many people don’t like confronting the homeless as individuals.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 9, 2013 at 10:51 am

      That could be a factor. Some do consider the homeless to detract from the image of a city and one reason cities endeavor to get the homeless to move on is for appearance’s sake.

  2. WTP said, on August 9, 2013 at 10:29 am

    Of course compelling American citizens to leave a state without their consent would seem to be legally problematic, however compelling American citizens to support the homeless via a means determined by the government is perfectly OK.

    I suspect what is really driving this is that many people don’t like confronting the homeless as individuals.
    I suspect that having homeless people bothering tourists is not good for business. Not to mention that Hawaii already has a heavy burden supporting many of the indigenous Hawaiians who do not or cannot work.

    The state is providing incentives, subsidizing homelessness. When increased homelessness inevitably results, he objects to using the power of the state to stop supporting these people. No one is suggesting moving out any person who can support themselves. But restricting the liberty of the taxpayers to do as they please with their own money instead of draining their resources away to support the homeless in a manner deemed proper by leftist activists, that’s not a problem.

    TJ, note that Mike suggests broadening the power of the federal government less than 20 hours after stating “I’d favor weakening government by reducing laws and increasing liberty.”

    • T. J. Babson said, on August 9, 2013 at 11:10 am

      I suspect that having homeless people bothering tourists is not good for business.


  3. T. J. Babson said, on August 9, 2013 at 11:13 am

    You have to admit that Hawaii sounds like a pretty good place to be homeless compared, say, to Minnesota.

    Yes, going to Hawaii sounds like a perfectly rational thing to do.

    • WTP said, on August 9, 2013 at 11:21 am

      Amazing how “homeless” people can gather the resources to get there, but somehow can’t gather the resources to find gainful employment and fit into their originating communities. We’re not talking California or Florida where hitching a ride or hoboing is a possibility.

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