Last week’s column on homelessness by my colleague, Professor Roscoe Scarborough, has left me wondering whether homelessness is an intractable problem.

Dr. Scarborough listed conditions that cause or contribute to homelessness. The list took up the entire column. He had no space left to elaborate or provide details.

Research on homelessness is new to me, but research on poverty is not. Studying poverty will knot up your guts but give you hope. The gut knots come from realizing that the problem is much more difficult than we social scientist policy wonks think it is. The hope comes from history.

Most poverty studies focus on present circumstances: low-paying jobs, factories moving or shutting down, inadequate access to health care, etc. The list of circumstances that cause or contribute to poverty is long and looks much like Dr. Scarborough’s list of conditions that cause or contribute to homelessness.

An exclusive focus on present circumstances can understandably lead one to conclude that, with so many shortcomings, something must be fundamentally wrong with the country’s economic system. A historical perspective yields a different assessment.

In 1900, 3% of U.S. homes had electricity, 15% had flush toilets, 24% had running water. No homes had central heating, a refrigerator or a washing machine. Today, a home without electricity, running water, a flush toilet and central heating would be condemned as unfit to live in.

In 1900, life expectancy at birth in the U.S. was 46 years; today it’s 79. Of every 1,000 babies born in 1900, 165 died before their first birthday, 239 died before their fifth. In 2019, the figures were 5.6 and 7.

Children under age 5 years accounted for 30% of all U.S. deaths in 1900; they accounted for 0.86% in 2019. Infectious diseases accounted for 46% of U.S. deaths in 1900 but 2% in 2019.

The fact is, for all its flaws — and there are plenty — our type of economic system has delivered an increase in living standards over the past 150 years that is utterly without precedent. Nothing in human history comes even remotely close to the increase in living standards that this type of economic system has brought, and the primary beneficiaries have been not the rich, but the poor.

This type of economic system — capitalism is a stupid word for it, but that’s the word we use — has turned things such as the innovations that have reduced the infant mortality rate from 165 to 5.6 and the child mortality rate from 239 to 7, things that but a few generations ago the richest of the rich could only dream of, into things that all of us, including the poor among us, now consider basic.

Capitalism may look like a dog’s breakfast in the here-and-now, but nothing in human history has done more to improve the living standards of the poor.

The point is not to downplay the difficulty of living in poverty or to distract from the subject at hand, homelessness. Just the opposite.

People live in the here and now. A family in poverty doesn’t have several generations to wait for capitalism to do its thing. But that’s as fast as an economy can deliver.

Public policy has made a dent in mitigating poverty but only a dent. That’s no wonder. Every family is unique, with their own unique circumstances. Public policies devised to help poor families are devised by people who know nothing about those families or who they even are.

Poverty is a difficult problem. But homelessness makes poverty look like a walk in the park. I look forward to learning more from Dr. Scarborough.

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