Just Give Them the Money

In the 1950’s and 1960’s, a Michigan town used urban renewal projects to destroy black neighborhoods.  Today, they are compensating some surviving victims by building them affordable housing. Though it is obviously coming too late, this may seem the most fitting and just response.  Unfortunately, it isn’t the best way to help people.

Michigan doesn’t need to build new low-income housing, they don’t have enough people for the housing they’ve got which results in it falling into disrepair.  A major reason the economy is so messed up is that we, as a society, invested too much of our scarce resources in housing.  This just exacerbates it.

What they should have done, is taken the money they used to build housing and just give it to the people they were trying to help.  They’ll spend it more wisely than we would on their behalf.  For insight into how, and why, government has historically liked to control aid to the poor, I recommend Viviana Zelizer.  The work I’m most familiar with is The Social Meaning of Money but it could be that some of her other work is even more relevant.

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2 Responses to Just Give Them the Money

  1. Scott Golder says:

    You’re right, of course, that the aid to the poor is heavily laden with meaning, but more generally, isn’t it a dependence relation? To the extent that the poor rely on the government for the money, they can be controlled. So the Michigan move makes sense from the state’s point of view: a resource like low-income housing, access to which can be revoked at any time, is far more amenable to control than cash payments. “Strings attached” isn’t a marionette metaphor for nothing.

  2. Michael Bishop says:

    I hope that if voters are more educated in the costs and benefits associated with different ways to aid the poor (or compensate victims of discrimination) then they will encourage their elected officials to choose more efficient means to achieve good ends. There are cases where I support strings being attached to benefits.

    If you’ll excuse a little speculation on politicians’ motives, one benefit of aiding/compensating people with housing, is that you make good friends with the developers and construction workers who get the contracts.

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