The Stew BLOG

ReThinking the Quest for Sustainable Financing: Choices, Abundance and Leadership: How Do We Decide Where the Homeless Man Will Live?

Stacy Becker, Vice President, Programs | 09/06/2015

Part 4: ReThinking the Quest for Sustainable Financing Blog Series

When I was budget director for the City of Saint Paul, a council member complained that the budget process was too long. She went on to say, “I could have finished the entire budget on my own in one night.”

Well, that’s true of anyone who can add. The difficulty is not getting the numbers to add up, it’s getting people to agree on how they should add up. It’s all about choices.

In a world of unlimited resources, we don’t have to worry about choices. We can just keep spending more money. But that’s not the world we live in, so we have to make choices. If we don’t like the outcomes we’re seeing, we have to make different choices.

Here’s an example. For many years, the plight of the homeless has attracted attention and garnered heartfelt pledges to “end homelessness.” Yet homelessness is tenaciously persistent. A colleague in Minnesota runs a housing agency that offers single room occupancy (SRO) housing with a shared bathroom as a cost-effective means of serving the homeless. She said that her agency is often derided for doing this. SRO housing: Not acceptable!

In whose eyes, I wondered, is SRO unacceptable? Did they ask the shivering homeless man struggling to survive under a bridge in the Minnesota winter whether sharing a bathroom is preferable to his current living situation?

We encounter such “resource schizophrenia” everywhere. On the one hand, we claim that resources are extremely scarce—we need more! (The Minnesota legislature just passed a $100 million bond for affordable housing.) On the other hand, we make choices as if resources are unlimited. (Did I mention in a previous post that the average cost of building a new single unit of “affordable” housing in the Twin Cities is $230,000? Twice for good measure.)

It’s possible we live in a world of abundant resources, but our choices are lacking. How long can we continue to make money the solution instead of acknowledging that disagreements in our underlying values, mental models, and moral positions shape our choices about how to use resources?

Seemingly perplexing budget problems look different when we consider just how often they arise not from scarcity, but rather from the difficulties we have in collectively managing our abundant resources. After all, in the U.S. we spend $3 trillion plus a year on health care and don’t have the health outcomes to show for it. The United States incarcerates 707 people per 100,000 population, compared to 188 in Turkey or 118 in Canada, for example, at an enormous cost. Meanwhile, one-half of the US prison population has mental health concerns, with 10-25% suffering from serious mental illness. We can look locally too. New York City spends more than $20,000 per pupil a year, graduating 37% of black males and 78% of white males. (For comparison, Los Angeles spends $10,700, Chicago $12,300 and wealthy Fairfax County $13,700).

Is lack of money the answer in any of these cases? Can we afford not to make better choices? The seemingly endless struggles of money and financing are less about number-crunching and access to riches than they are about the choices we make as leaders and stewards to shape our common life.

Stacey Becker is the regional financing and investment director for ReThink Health. Becker is also a public policy consultant and former budget director for San Francisco and St. Paul.