Conservative policies presume that if you get government out of the way, the magic of the free market will create enough prosperity that the demand on government services will be reduced or eliminated and that the market will also somehow handle social services like homelessness, substance use disorder, and the other negative externalities that bedevil society.
This worldview posits that government should be funding police, courts, prisons and the military, and in an ideal conservative world, the rest of us are on our own, to succeed or fail based on our level of effort, while generally ignoring the opportunities afforded to the privileged and put further out of reach from people who are not.
A few weeks ago, Chase Woodruff, a reporter for Colorado Newsline posted something on Twitter that I haven’t been able to get out of my head since:
“First we decided we’d rather not solve societal problems and then we decided we’d rather not have to look at the consequences.”
I have yet to find a more succinct explanation for how conservative policies work in the real world than this, and it really is an amazing trick if you think about it. First, conservatives tell you government doesn’t work, then they defund it at every opportunity, then they point at broken and underfunded systems languishing without resources and say, “see, government doesn’t work.”
Conservative policies in Colorado and throughout the country have systematically defunded our public education system, special interest groups successfully lobbied for payments to for-profit developers instead of building and maintaining quality public housing, and our public health system, especially our mental health and substance use disorder treatment and recovery system is in tatters, with county jails in Colorado serving as the state’s primary mental health providers.
At least in our state, this is due in part to TABOR, which ensures low taxes on the wealthy and big corporations, and other conservative fiscal restraints that have placed state revenue far below what a place that is growing as rapidly as Colorado needs to keep up with demand.
So what are the consequences of this lack of investment? More crime, more visible homelessness, more visible poverty, childhood hunger rates that shock the conscience, crumbling roads and bridges, and a divided society where the gap between the haves and the have-nots has grown monumentally, and a conservative political infrastructure that finds it in their interest to avoid accountability.
Paid partisans point at progressive policies that prefer rehabilitation over retribution for people convicted of crimes as the causes of homelessness, poverty, recidivism and reoffense, without evidence. Conservative pundits and politicians prefer harsh sentencing, long prison terms, and punishment-oriented approaches to crime which have frankly never
The United States incarcerates human beings at a higher rate than any other nation on earth. If the solution to poverty, homelessness and crime were to lock people up and throw away the key, we’d have solved all of society’s problems long ago.
Louisiana has the nation’s highest incarceration rate, which doesn’t translate to lower rates of crime. Indeed, Louisiana also has the very highest violent crime and property crime rates in the country. Locking more people up for longer does not have the deterrent effect claimed by proponents of failed “tough on crime” policies.
Visible poverty and homelessness have increased in the past few years, in Colorado and across the nation, no one is denying that. The aforementioned lack of public investment coupled with a global pandemic that exacerbated already extreme wealth inequality bears much of the blame for this. Unscrupulous partisans capitalizing on the suffering of our friends and neighbors would sweep the visibility of poverty under the rug so that people don’t have to be made uncomfortable by the results of their policy choices rather than help those who are being economically crippled by COVID.
I called Cathy Alderman, chief communications and policy officer with the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless to ask about what should be done about the increase in visible homelessness and poverty, she said,
“Evaluations of housing programs, including Denver’s Social Impact Bond have shown that It costs about $20,000 a year per person to house them and provide a basic level of supportive services to keep them housed. To leave them homeless and cycling in and out of the criminal justice and public health emergency services system costs up to $50,000 per person per year.”
So it’s not only more humane and reasonable to help people who are struggling instead of punishing them, for my conservative friends, it’s also much cheaper. When compassion, economics, and reality line up, and one group still prefers to punish people for trying to ameliorate their misery, we must question their stated objectives, and wonder what their true motivations are.
Ian Silverii is the founder of The Bighorn Company, a dad, a husband, and the former director of ProgressNow Colorado. Follow him on Twitter @iansilverii.
This article originally appeared in The Denver Post.