How could any sane observer above the age of 14 honestly believe that a new federal program would succeed in “wiping out” all “chronic homelessness” by 2015? Or, even more outlandishly, how are realistic grownups supposed to credit the notion that the same bureaucratic initiative will somehow manage to “end” homelessness of every sort within ten years?
The only factor that prevented a deafening national chorus of hoots and guffaws from greeting the announcement of President Obama’s ambitious new “Opening Doors” program (officially described as a “Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness”) was the lack of publicity accorded to the administration’s latest utopian scheme. Major media understandably paid little attention to a big new federal thrust unveiled with considerable fanfare on June 22, in the midst of soaring deficits, a teetering world economy, a failing war in Afghanistan, a catastrophic oil spill, a stymied “jobs bill”, a surging Republican opposition and a chief executive with precipitously plummeting approval ratings.
In fact, the odd timing of Obama’s “end homelessness” initiative raises an uncomfortable question: how is a federal government that has been utterly unable to seal off a single oil well in the Gulf of Mexico supposed to solve (within ten years, no less!) an intractable, nationwide, social and psychiatric problem that has foiled governmental authorities at the federal, state and local level for a half century?
Defenders of the administration’s arrogant approach would insist that there’s no meaningful comparison between federal impotence in the face of the Gulf oil slick and the painful predicament of the homeless hordes, since the undersea gusher was properly the responsibility of BP and its associates, not the feds. But this logic leads to another unanswerable challenge: since when did the dilemma of homeless citizens in Hoboken and Honolulu become the responsibility of preening panjandrums in Washington, D.C., rather than the local leadership in Hoboken and Honolulu?
In fact, the new federal effort mostly duplicates costly efforts already underway in every corner of the country. According to the advocacy group The National Alliance to End Homelessness, cities and towns are currently conducting 234 local plans to “end homelessness,” and 84% of them include ten year deadlines—just like the Obama undertaking.How is it logical to assume that Washington officials could do a better job clearing destitute transients from the parks and sidewalks of your home town than could the local armies of social workers, medical care professionals, anti-poverty counselors and law enforcement, already working (chances are) on ten year deadlines?
The reliance on federal power illustrates the twisted thinking that undergirds every aspect of the president’s domestic agenda. Would even the glib and accomplished commander-in-chief be able to explain why acute local troubles --like homelessness, or the provision of medical care, or struggling schools-- require ministrations and money from far away Washington, instead of the more flexible and accountable efforts of public servants who are closer (in every way) to the pressing problems?
Reflexive liberals might provide the immediate answer that Washington has more money to spend but in the current context that claim comes across like a sour joke. If anything, the national authorities have even less financial flexibility than state and local authorities, since most local governments are prohibited by law from operating at a deficit, and Washington has recently accumulated the staggering total of more than 13 trillion in debt. It’s true that the feds can borrow money more readily than local authorities, but the level of indebtedness has already become so perilous that purely fiscal considerations (aside from problems of efficiency and responsiveness) should lead the national authorities to avoid any expensive intrusions in challenges best left to state and local responses.
The messianic visions of the Obama administration stand little chance of success in their announced purposes, but they might still fulfill their primary unacknowledged goal: making national Democrats look good because they’re doing something—anything, no matter how feckless and lame – to address the concerns of the public. By federalizing these efforts, however, the liberal agenda only cripples government at every level: pre-empting the proper responsibilities of local leadership, and enfeebling federal operations by making the national government an ever more unwieldy, clumsy and unsustainable behemoth.