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Commentary: Abolish Section 8

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 4, 2009 - What if we dump Section 8? That's right, just completely eliminate the program. This proposal is intended to be an alternative to "streamlining government," "reducing corruption" and "weeding out waste." The idea is not for government to improve its methods; the idea is for government to completely eliminate programs.

Section 8 subsidizes rent for poor people. On the tenant side, a person with "low" income proves he or she doesn't have or make much money. The bureaucrats then approve the person for a rent subsidy. On the landlord side, a property owner decides that he or she would like to get some government money for rent for a particular property, and puts the property in the program. The landlord advertises the property, the landlord and a tenant find one another, and the tenant moves in. Thereafter if the rent is, say, $750 a month, the government pays, say, $500 of the $750.

Section 8 has three bad effects.

Rental Inflation

The first bad effect is that market prices of real estate take the subsidies into account. In other words, because the government is paying some of the rent for some of properties, the price of all properties goes up, and it is just a big circle. There is no benefit to that, and we all pay for the bureaucracy and the baloney that goes along with the program.

Work, Family Disincentive

The second bad effect is that it punishes people who make money. This is the classic "Big Meanie Republican" argument. Big Meanie Republicans say that if we have a system in which people only get a benefit if they don't make money, then we are creating an incentive for them to not even try to make money and essentially punishing them for succeeding.

The Lefties pooh-pooh this idea and say the Big Meanie Republicans have no idea what it is to be poor and that they should have some compassion for the less fortunate.

The problem the Lefties face is that the Big Meanie Republicans got their way in the 1990s and passed a rule stating that poor people could not stay on welfare forever. Pretty promptly, a material percentage of poor people went out and found work and started taking care of their own needs.

Also keep in mind that Section 8 discourages family formation.

We all sympathize with single moms taking care of a bunch of kids with absent fathers; and we imagine, rightly, that such kids start with a big disadvantage. But if a mother is in Section 8, the dad knows that if he moves in, gets a good job and starts supporting the family, the family will lose the Section 8 money. Thus, by forming a family in which there is actually a father at home working side by-side with the mother to raise children of good character, the family unit loses some money.

People tend to be very cautious about losing an existing benefit in favor of a speculative one. Many single mothers thus stay on the program and keep the dads away in order to maintain financial stability. The dads, of course, feel superfluous, and so sometimes tend toward dissipation.

Neighborhood Disintegration

The third bad effect of Section 8 is it is very harmful to neighborhood formation.

A neighborhood is a fragile and beautiful thing. Over time neighbors come to know one another. They watch out for each other's kids. Neighbors walk to the local coffee shop together and talk about how to improve their lives. They develop a common purpose. A part of their commonality is a sense that they are pulling their oars in the same cadence.

Now insert a Section 8 unit into a beautiful and fragile neighborhood. The Section 8 family is not paying full freight for the house they are living in. Is that family really going to keep up the property according to the neighborhood's standards? Usually not. Is that family's standard of behavior going to show the same commitment to the neighborhood as the full freight people? Commonly not. Is the regular neighborhood crowd, with oars in cadence, really going to include the Section 8 family in all the neighborhood activities? Oftentimes not.

So, over time, the Section 8 house becomes a blemish on the neighborhood. A full-pay family moves out and that property goes into Section 8. Pretty soon, the blemish becomes a sore. Finally the sore becomes a cancer. More full-pay families move away. Pretty soon the block fades.

I believe Section 8 is a major cause of the deterioration of our cities. Thus, perversely, a program designed to help the poor ends up ruining neighborhoods where poor people live and where the need for the people to work together is greatest.

What would the world look like without Section 8? First, we would need a place to house the truly poor, particularly including the elderly and the homeless with children. I propose free Spartan dormitories. Charge nothing. Keep the noise down and throw out the criminals. Prohibit television. Provide warmth in the winter but no air conditioning in the summer.

Americans are a self reliant lot. It will not take long for most families to find a way to get a place of their own. An enormous advantage of the free, Spartan dormitory model is that there would be no costs of determining eligibility, and the government's administrative costs will sink dramatically.

Let's assume we adopt this proposal. Transition will take a year or two. All existing Section 8 leases will have to stay in place until expiration. Landlords and their banks will need brief forbearance or something similar pending market adjustment. But pretty quickly, the above described bad effects will start to disappear. Thereafter, families will be more inclined to form and take care of their own situations, and neighborhood stability will increase.

Ending Section 8 will involve firing many, many bureaucrats. We can all sympathize with those who will lose their jobs, but keep in mind that many of these people will get jobs in the private sector. The people will then retain more money in their own hands.

To restate my favorite theme, Americans are a self-reliant, individualistic lot. The fired bureaucrats will find things to do. Each will end up adding his or her bit to the economy and so the standard of living for everyone will improve.

I can't help myself from concluding with a shot at the limousine liberals, the sweet members of the wealthy chattering classes who chime in that "Big Meanie Republicans" like me are cold and heartless and out to ruin lives of the less fortunate.

I ask these people only one question. Where do you live? I bet if you are smart enough to be in the chattering class you don't live next to any Section 8 housing. Seen much Section 8 housing lately in Clayton or Ladue?

Bevis Schock is an attorney in private practice in Clayton.