The details are the important part in the “housing crisis.”

By its nature, advocacy journalism glosses over the details that many would consider crucial.  Headlines from a pair of such articles by Katie Mulvaney in the Providence Journal illustrate the point:

Six months pregnant with nowhere to go – an unhoused woman’s plight on RI’s streets

After months of sleeping on the street, pregnant woman finally has a shelter bed

The first paragraph of the second article provides the journalist’s objective:

It took a week after a story highlighting her grim scenario, but the pregnant woman who spent months sleeping on the street in Pawtucket has landed in a shelter – with a lot of help along the way.

Understandably, journalists want to feel as if they’ve got the power to help people they want to help.  The problem — especially when the same journalists are touchy about seeming to victim blame — is that the details that highlight the underlying problem become obscured.  Thus, we end up with solutions that pour more money into problems while leaving the underlying incentives in place, which has the effect of subsidizing the problem, leading to more of it.  The heroine of Mulvaney’s story is not the only pregnant woman in Rhode Island shelters.

It isn’t victim blaming to call out some of the notable details:

  • The mother appears to come from a childhood with exposure to drugs.
  • She is living on Social Security disability for some unreported malady.
  • She was evicted last March for non-payment of rent.
  • By the math, she became pregnant five months later.
  • The father has a felony record, hasn’t had a stable home since he turned 18 five years ago, and implies he uses drugs.
  • He is also living on Social Security disability.

The details suggest two important points.  The first is that this is an extreme case.  To the extent limited resources help others who could more easily help themselves (and invite people to bring their problems here), fewer are available for such mothers.

The second is that multiple layers of public policy are in play, here, including drug policy, criminal reform policy, policy governing payment for disabilities, broad policies affecting the health of the economy, and more.  We can and should help such people, but if we want to stop the downward spiral that draws more Rhode Islanders into it, we have to begin rethinking our entire approach.


Featured image by Justin Katz using Dall-E 3.

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Warrington Faust
Warrington Faust
13 days ago

among those people I know, in a position to know, tell me that “Disability” is simply a new form of welfare.

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