Friday, September 14, 2012

COMMON KNOWLEDGE: Reagan and the Homeless

“They make their own choice for staying out there.”
-Ronald Reagan

You hear it again and again, from the most surprising of sources. Ronald Reagan created massive homelessness when he became president, and one of the main reasons was ordering mental hospitals and asylums shut down, forcing people out on the streets. These lunatics, schizophrenics, and mentally disturbed people had no ability to fend for themselves and ended up slumped on sidewalks and under buildings, muttering to themselves.

600,000 homeless walked America, according to one study, and that number was trumpeted again and again by the media and the Democrats in congress, claiming Reagan was heartless and cruel. Cuts in the federal government were putting them on the streets, and cities were helpless to deal with the problems because of draconian, drastic cuts in the federal budget by the Reagan administration.

These days you don't hear much about the homeless. They all went away during the Clinton administration, apparently. When Democrats are president suddenly the homeless aren't much of an issue, but when Republicans are, suddenly its a crisis. Obama is a Democrat, so news about the homeless is virtually unseen but if a Republican is president again, you will see a sudden epidemic again.

There are people living on the streets of every nation on earth, including America. There are too many people living on the streets, including families and people who would work hard and succeed if only they could find a job. But was Reagan so evil about the homeless? Did he cause the problem? And what about those mental hospitals?

For some reason the "Reagan closed the asylums and filled our streets with loonies" myth is one of the strongest and oldest in our society. And yes, its a myth.

The truth is, many mentally ill people were removed from hospitals and asylums and set out on their own. That happened because of several court cases, the most critical one being a Supreme Court case in 1975 called O'Connor v. Donaldson. The court ruled that someone may not be incarcerated in a mental institution against their will unless they are a danger to themselves or society. To do so would be a violation of their basic civil rights to liberty and as a result many people who had been thrown into these institutions were set free.

In fact the ball started rolling in the Kennedy administration, with the final bill he signed into law the Community Mental Health Act, which commissioned a study on how the mentally ill and insane were being treated and whether the current system was good or bad.

Previously it had been not uncommon in cities for cops to arrest people who were mentally handicapped and stick them into an institution even if they were functional. Sure, maybe they talked to themselves and seemed crazy, but they could function in the world, even hold down a job. But if they were causing any problems, or deemed a "vagrant" (someone with no visible means of support or fixed address), they could be thrown in jail or an asylum.

Ronald Reagan was Governor of California from 1967 to 1975, and ran for president in 1976. He was defeated in the primaries and spent 4 years working on his campaign, his speeches, and behind the scenes with the Republican Party. He was elected president in 1980, five years after the court decision to put mentally ill people on the streets. President Reagan had absolutely nothing to do with that decision or the release of these people.

Let me repeat that: it was the Supreme Court case of O'Connor v. Donaldson in 1975 that put the mentally handicapped on the streets, that opened asylums and put relatively harmless and functional insane people into the general population, not Ronald Reagan, and not when he was president. That is absolute indisputable fact.

Ronald Reagan did sign the Lanterman–Petris–Short Act in California as governor, which took effect in 1972, effectively doing what the O'Connor v. Donaldson ruling did nationwide. The bill had bipartisan support and was widely lauded by the left as a civil rights masterpiece. The ACLU argued for the end of forced institutionalization of harmless insane people, not Ronald Reagan.

There were more homeless on the streets under Reagan, though, that much is true. Part of it was the supreme court's decision - many of these people were no harm to themselves or others, but weren't really capable of taking care of themselves adequately and couldn't hold down jobs on their own. So they ended up on their own, on the streets. They're still out there after 12 years of Democrat presidencies, by the way.

Part of the reason for the increase is what we're experiencing right now. The Carter economy was so horrific that after several years of double digit inflation and unemployment, a lot of people lost their homes, lost their jobs, lost their savings. Some of those people ended up on the streets, living in cars, boxes, and shelters. Whole families were thrust into the streets because of the recession. But Ronald Reagan worked to pull the United States out of the recession, and Carter put us into it. Blame President Carter, not President Reagan for homelessness of this sort.

There is another cause which can be partly put at Ronald Reagan's feet though. By the end of Reagan's term in office, federal funding for state and local assistance programs had been cut by 60%.
Reagan eliminated general revenue sharing to cities, slashed funding for public service jobs and job training, almost dismantled federally funded legal services for the poor, cut the anti-poverty Community Development Block Grant program and reduced funds for public transit. The only “urban” program that survived the cuts was federal aid for highways – which primarily benefited suburbs, not cities.

These cutbacks had a disastrous effect on cities with high levels of poverty and limited property tax bases, many of which depended on federal aid. In 1980 federal dollars accounted for 22 percent of big city budgets. By the end of Reagan’s second term, federal aid was only 6 percent.
That NHI article is trying to portray this as some great evil but think about this a bit. Not only does the US Constitution not permit the federal government to tax citizens and hand it out to other citizens in terms of aid, but the problem here is that the states weren't picking up the slack. Instead of handling this themselves, states were busy spending the increased revenues in the 80s Reagan boom economy on other programs, raising public employee union benefits and wages, and ignoring the needs of their community.

Why didn't the states cover these areas? They had the tax base, but it would require them to shift their spending to areas that the people in charge weren't as fond of. It would mean fewer raises for legislators, fewer helicopters for the governor, less city beautification projects, fewer basketball tournaments, and so on. Those diversity consultants won't hire themselves you know.

Yes, spending on social areas were "cut" under Reagan (as in, they didn't get the increases that congress wanted, mostly). The states had to pick up the ball more under Reagan. They didn't, and as a result some problems resulted.

There never were as many homeless as the advocates claimed. That 600,000 number came from a study done by an advocacy organization which later admitted that they guessed at most of the data because it was virtually impossible to count their numbers. Many homeless are addicts, drunk, or insane, and almost all are very suspicious or even hostile toward authorities. They hide from, lie to, and avoid people, even those claiming to help. So they just estimated, guessing what as there, and they estimated very, very high.

The data was trash, the methodology was junk and yet to this day you still see that number being thrown around like it was from the voice of God on high. To give a feel for how bad these homeless counts are, I offer you this piece from a few years back on this blog, during the Bush administration:
Recently, a study was released that claimed 1.5 million American children experienced homelessness between 2005 and 2006.
1,500,000 is one out of every fifty children in the United States, a stunningly high number, paticularly in a period of very strong economic growth, sometimes record low unemployment, and low inflation. What on earth was going on?

Well, aside from a Republican President, the study turns out to, again, be less than reliable. Joshua Miller reports at Fox News:
The report — released Tuesday by the National Center on Family Homelessness and reported by numerous news organizations, including — estimated that one out of every 50 children in America experienced "homelessness" during that two-year span.

But rather than using the definition of homelessness established by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Massachusetts-based organization used a standard adopted by the Department of Education that includes children who are "doubled up," or children who share housing with other persons due to economic hardship or similar reason.

The difference? About 1,170,000 children.
So if you lived with someone else, this report said you had no home. By that definition (not owning your own house) I guess every kid in America is homeless, unless they are Richie Rich.
In other words, they were wrong by a factor of five because they used utterly worthless definitions and categories to announce something ridiculous. Why? Because it worked last time, people cling to that bogus study like Roseanne Barr does a box of Bon Bons.

The fact is, homeless people are out there, and some of them are in a bad place through no fault of their own. Not everyone is a lunatic, drunk, drug addict, or troublemaker. When your house is foreclosed on you and you're tossed out on the street you end up homeless. There are real people who genuinely have done all the right things and tried hard who have ended up living on the streets, temporarily.

Churches, homeless shelters, food banks, religious organizations, and various private sources help out people in this situation, as they should. Not everyone takes advantage of that, and the full quote by Ronald Reagan at the top is this:
They make their own choice for staying out there. There are shelters in virtually every city and shelters here in Washington, these people still prefer to live out there on the grates or the lawns rather than staying in one of these shelters.
And that's true; if you refuse to take advantage of the many places that care for and help homeless people out, that's your problem, not society's. And ultimately, the burden to get back on your feet is your own burden. Yes, we all should help those in need in our family and neighborhood. Yes, we have a duty and an opportunity to assist those in need who we can. But that assistance has to be in the form of helping them get on their own feet and no longer need us.

This is part of the Common Knowledge series: Things we know that ain't so.


Larry Sheldon said...

Before there as a 1975, there were "homeless".

Some were called hobos (and my belief is they for the most part lived a life of their choosing.

Some were called "okies" or "migrants" or "braceros" and by some definitions were doing what they wanted to do, although many, but not all, would disagree.

I don't know what we were called--we just lived in the boarding-house lady's garage.

And my parents didn't like that--they had been evicted from a nice two-bedroom house with a big yard (garden, chickens, rabbits) in Sherman Oaks.

Then they found a tiny 1-bedroom house in a "court"--four tiny houses on a city lot.

Among those that my parents helped were mirants and hobos, and .....

Christopher R Taylor said...

Yeah, there's always been bums and such that live out on the streets, in every culture through history. It got a bit worse in the 80s for the reasons listed, but it wasn't anything new.

Joan of Argghh! said...

Having worked (for free) with the homeless I think I can offer an unbiased endorsement of what you've portrayed here. IOW, I never profited from their plight, so it never served me to overstate it.

For the ones who were not "crazy" most were living the sort of life they actually could handle. It's not easy, by our lights, but it's free from nettling "oughts" and "shoulds" and is pretty much an existence based on gaming the bleeding hearts who are clueless. They are doing precisely what they want to do. No more, no less.

Personally, I knew a woman who as a young teen had been abused repeatedly by her uncle. He convinced her family to have her institutionalized. She was released as an adult woman in her late 30's, with not more than a few problems. She was angry and troubled, but perfectly sane. Today, 30 years later, she's still married to a guy she rescued from same fate, owns her own home, started her own business, sold her business, and is retiring more comfortably than will I.

Gregoryno6 said...

There was a worldwide movement towards 'de-institutionalisation' of the mentally ill. Partly it can be attributed to the Scottish psychiatrist R D Laing. Laing's book Sanity Madness and the Family presents a few case studies; some inmates were the product of home environments that would drive anyone nuts!
Laing said that some people kept in asylums didn't belong there. Unfortunately governments in many places didn't hear the 'some' and began closing institutions, declaring that the inmates really would be better off walking free. To put it country simple, as Mr Burroughs would say, it was a cost-cutting exercise.

Anonymous said...

It is bat-shite crazy to assert, without evidence, that a POTUS could force patients to be evicted from state-run "insane asylums".

@Brandt Hardin: maybe YOU ought to be "institutionalized" for harboring fact-free fantasies about Reagan.

If you had a scintilla of evidence to back up the assertions being made here, you might try to put them on the table.

Sounds to me like you've palming your pills....for a long. long time.

p.s. You're not an artist. You only think you are. Jack Kevorkian appears to have been your main source of "inspiration".

dundalkman said...

god, what a bunch of bull-shit(e).

Reagan closed the asylums, homelessness became prevalent. I"m old enough to remember seeing homeless families for the first time ever. Are you?
The repeating result of no treatment for mental health and the lifting of the ban on assault weapons (by the way, who in their right mind (well, that leaves out 99% of republicans) would allow and encourage machine guns being sold to crazy people?
The republicans lifted the ban on assault weapons.
Because of no-to-limited treatment options for the mentally impaired, and the wide open availability of assault weapons, you get Columbine, Aurora, and the latest manifestation of this insanity in CT. What is WRONG with you people?

Terry Calderwood said...

@ dundalkman and others of a like mind

the assault weapons ban did nothing except make people want them that much more. and if you had bothered to look, you would be aware that the price tag on them is usually at least $1200 or more.
they are also almost exclusively a semi-automatic type, not a "machine gun" which are by definition fully automatic. These require a class 5 weapons licence to own and very few people have that. Let me put it in understandable terms -
semi-automatic = pull the trigger and fires one cartridge at a time.
fully automatic = pull the trigger and fires repeatedly until the magazine is empty or the trigger is released.
Furthermore, mass shootings are not on the rise, despite appearances. The year with the most was 1929, and there has been a decrease since around circa 2000. One article on this can be founs here, and there are others out there:

What has increased in recent years is the media coverage of them due to improvements in communication and information technologies.

Anonymous said...

Actually dundalkman, what is wrong with YOU? Your logic explains that because you saw a homeless family when young, it was caused by Reagan. You need to do some research before pointing your brainwashed finger at anyone.

Anonymous said...

The fact is...people with mental illnesses can not function as "normal" so it is societies responsibility to care for them. They did not choose to be lunatics. As you called it is not their fault! American senior citizens, physical and/or mentally ill should NEVER be on the streets! It's not one presidents fault, in my oppinion it's the general attitude of all people. Heartless and greedy and selfish...that's what we have become...and each generation gets worse and worse. It makes me sad. I am trying to teach my children to work hard, treat everyone with dignity and respect..including mentally and physically ill or handicapped people, to have pride and not take a hand out even if you "qualify" because its ruining society, to basically live right and decent. To value relationships with family friends and neighbors...not clothes shoes and cars!!

Anonymous said...

Good article. I just used it to find the initial federal law and the first test case and sent it to some liberal friends here in California who were blaming Reagan. I've known for some time that there was a distortion of the facts but you helped clarify by providing laws. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for providing facts. Something liberals have a true disdain for. I was going to say, how did homelessness just suddenly come about with one President... Reagan that is. It's just not possible if you use common sense.