The Cult of Personal Responsibility

2023-03-12 Word Count: 3656 Reading Time: 19m


My local paper released this gem of an article yesterday from the paper's esteemed owner and former Chehalis City Councilor Chad Taylor.

It's one of many contributing voices in the cacophony of responses to our ongoing crises regarding our growing homeless population. The article doesn't really bring a whole lot to the table when it comes to policy or even informed critique. So why am I taking time responding to it? There are a few reasons:

  1. This particular article is incredibly shallow, which isn't a point worthy of response. But, it has also been made a sponsored FB page by the publisher. The Chronicle has decided that this particular editorial should be boosted as a Facebook ad so more eyes can see it than just their normal organic traffic. This is indicative of a trend I've been noticing with our esteemed paper and I'll get into that in a bit.
  2. It's an incendiary article that, while being uninformed and tone deaf, suffers from a naive response to complex social issues.

The Solution Is In The Name

What's Mr Taylor's primary target here? Homelessness. Though he does muddy the waters quite a bit with other topics: drug abuse, mental health, government incentives, etc. Even with that, the obvious solution to homelessness is in the name of the problem: housing. The issue being the supply cannot meet demand or what is available is priced out of peoples' ability to afford it.

In the end, our area lacks housing. This problem has only been made worse recently with the closing of the Motel 6 and selling of the OYO that housed many who could not afford what little the market has to offer. Just like that, our homeless population increased by 50 or so families (likely more but I'm being conservative here).

All of the other symptoms that Mr Taylor loudly decries are near impossible to address without stable housing. Including but not limited to addiction, mental health, poverty, and so on.

Government Incentivized Homelessness

It doesn't take long for Mr Taylor to reveal his hand on what he believes where the real issue lies: the real bogeyman, the boot on the necks of our great people, is none other than... The Government.

Now, don't get me wrong, I've been known to enjoy a good bashing on 'ole Uncle Sam. Our bureaucracy is bloated, inefficient, opaque, and can be bought with the right amount of money. So, I'm not exactly some pro-government apologist. Don't even get me started on how we're willing to send our people to war but do so very little for them when they come home (often broken and traumatized by their experience of being sent).

Having said all that, neither am I naive enough to think that homelessness would just magically just disappear were our government to simply not exist or be greatly diminished. Same goes with our current social issues like drug addiction or mental health. Both government and capitalism are a tool that can be used to exploit, dehumanize, and delegitimize populations. Ultimately this is where I find Mr Taylor's analysis falls far short. He takes a systemic, complex, multi-faceted, social, cultural, and historical problem and unsurprisingly declares the problem is so easily laid at the feet of "the government".

Chad Taylor is the Sunday school equivalent of the kid that always tries to answer every question with "Jesus" or the "Holy Spirit". They might get the answer right here and there but they have absolutely no damn clue why.

Heavy On The Rhetoric

Taylor has all sorts of sweeping rhetoric. There are a few pieces that stood out to me though:

In fact, a fire at a vacant restaurant in Centralia over the weekend, allegedly caused by an individual named Christopher J. Jackson who Centralia police say is homeless, highlights just how urgent the situation has become.

Now, we have had more than one fire that has been started by a homeless person in an abandoned building here in our little town and I don't think any of it should be excused or diminished. It's a travesty and completely unnecessary. Having said that, I find it odd that Taylor, who takes such strong umbrage against the government, would take the statement of the enforcing arm of the government, our local police department, regarding Christopher J. Jackson's housing situation over and against say, his own paper's reporting on the issue where another source states to a judge that he resides in Centralia and has had a job for the last four years.

Why only mention the government's take on this individual's housing situation? Odd. His own paper has a better article he could have cited for this purpose.

Most of the private social welfare programs end up lining the pockets of poverty pimps and leads to more homelessness and makes it more difficult for individuals to get the help they need to get back on their feet.

Poverty pimps. I'm dying to know what he's referring to here. He specifies them as "private social welfare" programs. Given his issue seems to be regarding public social welfare, I'm not sure who he's referring to here. If he can clarify that, I'm still not sure what he's saying makes any sense. In fact, I have a hunch this line exists solely in the article so he could use the phrase "poverty pimps". It's right up there with the "homeless industrial complex" certain people love to talk about. It vacuous without any sort of information to go along with it.

Furthermore, the government's policies on affordable housing often do more harm than good. By imposing rent control and other regulations that make it difficult for landlords to operate profitably, the government disincentivizes the creation of new housing units. This, in turn, drives up the cost of existing housing and makes it more difficult for people to find affordable housing.

This is my favorite quote in the article if only for the fact that while seemingly desiring to strike at the heart of housing costs, he's only defending those who can't make a profit from... housing. What an interesting take. He doesn't appear to take issue with people not being able to afford housing. He's upset that people can't make a profit off of it because, you know, the government is the bad guy here. This is the weirdest, capitalist Stockholm syndrome I've ever witnessed.

I don't really have strong feelings one way or the other regarding rent control though if pressed I would probably be against it. Having said that, if the argument is to draw sympathy for the person who can't profit while owning multiple housing units over and against those who have none, well, I'm all short on sympathy I guess.

Can government make it prohibitive to build housing or other projects on property you own? Absolutely! That didn't seem to be much of a concern when the YMCA wanted to develop at Mineral Lake. Taylor didn't seem to take issue with the government being in the way then: News Dump Ep 122 - around the 28 minute mark

By allowing homeless encampments to proliferate, the government is sending a message that it is acceptable to live on the streets.

Does he think this is a message that needed to be sent? Are there lots of people who are just waiting to live on the streets if only the government would give the say-so? I really doubt it.

Our government should instead focus on policies that encourage personal responsibility and self-sufficiency. This means providing job training programs and other resources that help people acquire the skills they need to find work and support themselves. It also means removing unnecessary regulations and barriers to economic growth, so that businesses can create jobs and provide opportunities for those who are struggling.

Isn't this literally what all of these organizations that specialize in assisting homeless populations do?! I'm not entirely sure what he thinks is going on and furthermore, at this point, he appears more set on asserting loudly without evidence than asking questions to better understand. Like I said, heavy on the rhetoric, short on understanding.

Our mental health facilities must be given the tools they need to help fight this problem. Too many people are being left to die because we don’t have the courage to provide them the help they can’t ask for.

It would be nice to know, again, what sort of tools he is referring to here. If I had to guess by his other statements, perhaps he's referring to involuntary tools? Forcing people into programs or to be committed maybe? He ends it on an odd note though: "provide them the help they can't ask for". This is a weird statement and is at odds with his desire to encourage "personal responsibility" and "self-sufficiency". This doesn't seem to be far from the feared: "We're from the government and we're here to help". Except, I guess it's fine if he's ok with it?

Finally, it means adopting policies that discourage, rather than encourage, homelessness. This may mean cracking down on homeless encampments and other forms of public disorder, and providing assistance to homeless individuals to help them get back on their feet and become productive members of society.

I'd be very interested in Taylor outlining exactly, and in what ways, he would envision a program that provides help WHILE also discouraging homelessness. What does it mean or what would it look like?

Furthermore, "other forms of public disorder" are already largely illegal. So is squatting, trespassing, and arson. Does he think these laws are somehow preventative? Will adding more solve these issues? If so, will they solve it permanently or will they simply serve as a revolving door to our justice system?

This reminds me of similar rhetoric from Sean Swope, a politician that has made similar statements in the past about personal responsibility and accountability. A politician that Taylor favorably cites later in his editorial. I've written quite a bit about this particular person not all that long ago (see here, here, here, here, here, and here).

Thinking Through Outcomes

Given Chad Taylor's glowing appreciation of Sean Swope, I'm going to make an assumption that they share a similar approach in how to handle the "homelessness problem".

Most of this assumption is sourced from my previous articles on the topic regarding Sean Swope's comments and thinking through Taylor's assertions, but I'll try to summarize it here:

The best way to help those in homelessness and addiction is to encourage them to develop personal responsibility and self-sufficiency and not by enabling them in their condition.

Now, to date, I'm not aware of any statements from Swope or others on what that would look like process-wise. The definitions are almost completely undefined. So, I'll just have to walk through the what I think this would look like based on their past statements.

The first step would be raising the bar for how services are provided to the homeless population. Nothing is to be offered without the recipient earning it by following specific rules. This would ensure that those who want to succeed are also making an effort.

This makes sense on a surface level. All things of value require commitment and work. If a person isn't going to do that, they don't deserve the help (some would say).

So, let's say a person chooses to meet the requirements and get the help they need. Great! Success! This is the best possible outcome. It's also what makes our Drug Court program so effective for those who take advantage of it and take it seriously. It's only offered though if a person finds themselves in legal jeopardy. It would appear that drug court requires the threat of a stick before the offer of a carrot. If there is no stick because a person hasn't done anything illegal, the carrot stands alone as a goal.

Here's where I think we encounter our first problem and disagreement. When people look at the success of our drug court system, they may have a tendency to place the success of the program on it's ability to counter failure with punishment. You don't meet the program requirements, you go back to jail.

But every drug court graduate I've talked with would say that ultimately, they had to want to make a change. The avoidance of jail time or other legal issues was desirable, but in the end, success is determined by the participant desiring the carrot more than avoiding the stick. I would also think that the administrators of the program would agree with that. Avoiding charges or jail time is a bonus, not root motivator. If you want people to remain successful after the threat of the stick is taken away, the carrot has to be enough in and of itself.

In short, programs like drug court succeed by providing an opportunity. Sure, it's an opportunity at the alternative of punishment, but success lies in making use of the opportunity, not avoiding the punishment.

Punishment as a consequence makes a lot of sense given the myriad of crimes out there. It's a tale as old as time. But when it comes to homelessness there are a myriad of issues to untangle, the first of which is: it isn't illegal to be homeless (yet).

So, let's move to the next logical step in this line of thinking: make it illegal somehow. Find a way of to add a stick to this situation. That way, they (the homeless population) HAVE to get help or else.

That so many people loudly want to support incentivizing personal responsibility and self-sufficiency and yet their plans almost always start with coercion and force. In their eyes, the best method of developing personal responsibility and self-sufficiency is through pain. Increase the pain, increase the trauma, and the beatings will continue until personal responsibility improves. I'll touch on that in a moment but first:

Not A Smaller Government, A More Punitive One

I find it interesting that Chad Taylor and Sean Swope, in their efforts to reduce government involvement, seem to be completely unaware that they are trading that involvement in safety nets and programs for increased incarceration, more laws on the books, and less rights for citizens lacking means. In short, they don't want a smaller government, they simply want a government that does what they want.

So let's spell out what they don't say. When they talk about personal responsibility and self-sufficiency, what they leave unsaid is the "or else". Homelessness, drug addiction, and mental health issues are a visible blight on our communities (just forget for the moment they are, you know, people). Those dealing with said issues need to get help through programs that incentivize personal responsibility and self-sufficiency. And if they don't? Well, I've yet to hear them spell that out but based off of their statements they seem to be considering punitive responses. Which, at this time, would require more laws enacting more punishments for this particular population. I'm not sure if they're aware, but that also means a bigger government.

Fighting Trauma With Trauma

I've written on this topic before but if you don't want to read another article let me just state this: homelessness, substance abuse, and mental health issues are all traumatic issues.

They may not always begin in trauma, but it's a pretty well documented fact that the continued experience of dealing with these issues creates a traumatic feedback loop. In short, homelessness, substance abuse, and mental health issues all come with their own built in stick and no carrot.

It's literally, self-destructive behavior. At some point, these issues cross over from simply coping with an issue, to coping with the trauma of the coping, to being just a very long, slow game of Russian roulette.

How to help someone who wants to kill themselves? While they might not know that's what they are doing, self-destructive behaviors are just that, the death of a person.

This is in part why I take so little hope that using pain and trauma will help a person somehow discover their "personal responsibility". In the end, you're working with someone who may or may not realize they're holding a loaded gun to their head.

If we, as a society, abandon so many to their self-destruction, or worse, hurry it along, I'm afraid what remains will have so little moral value it won't be worth preserving. Sure, it'll be cleaner. And safer. And full of all the right people. But it will be dead inside. Not quite unlike a white washed tomb.

The homeless are not some aberration on our otherwise spotless record. Some rogue element with unknown causes or a social contamination. They're are exactly a product of the system we have. It's the system we've inherited and the very one we participate in every day.

Solutions, Mitigations, and Opportunities

Humans aren't exactly great at big, complex, solutions. Our ability to take in all of the variables and crunch the numbers is limited. Our models are only that, extrapolations from reality. So try not to be surprised when I say this: I don't have an immediate solution. I doubt anyone really does. We have a tendency to make progress in fits and starts. I hold out hope... but it's not near at the moment. I have a hunch things are going to get worse before they get better.

That's not to say there isn't anything we can do. We have stop-gaps and mitigations. We can keep trying to pull bodies out of this river. We can creatively keep opportunities alive and available for that moment when the person is ready lower the gun away from their head. We can take care of those who can't take care of themselves. We can share humanity where it's lacking or denied altogether. We can work to reduce the suffering of others and in turn improve the health of the community as a whole. We can walk with people as we patiently teach them personal responsibility instead of beat it into them.

In short, more carrots... less sticks. And a ton of patience. Our society, the machine that generates such a great number of broken people, cannot be quickly corrected.

Practicing Personal Responsibility

If Chad Taylor is so concerned with personal responsibility, he might want to begin with how his paper and by extension, its social media presence, contribute to the dysfunction and polarizing culture that deepens the divide in our community.

He could start by refraining from promoting incendiary editorials like this one to audiences far and wide. It's one thing to write it, it's a whole 'nother thing to turn it into an ad.

Furthermore, should he concern himself with personal responsibility, he might want to reconsider how his paper has been chasing sirens across our small towns and livestreaming traumatic events. These livestreams often have no context except a blurb about supporting local news by donating. Livestreams that fill up with comments asking what is going on or worse, rampant speculation of unfolding events.

If he's concerned about how homelessness reflects our community, he might not want to livestream a standoff between the police and woman with a knife at the OYO. Or a homeless person being arrested in the middle of downtown. Or an individual being carted into an ambulance in Chehalis. Providing no context and letting the onlookers excitedly guess at the facts of the matter.

If Chad Taylor is concerned with personal responsibility and our community, he may want consider that his Chronicle's Facebook posts are routinely filled with comments calling for violence or unsubstantiated hearsay and accusations.

Let me just go find a few:

"Two people permanently housed. Feel thumbsup story." (Regarding a murder in a homeless camp)

"amazing... Now we have "Indians" to talk about! what about "White Race" or the "Black People" are missing? How many more ideas can Washington come up with... just to be triggered and call people racist's? All right all you Cowboys mount up we got an indian to track... 'We got us a posse'" (about a missing indigenous person)

"Worthless Tweaker, She deserves to rot in prison for the rest of her life" (about mail-theft)

"Give him the George Floyd.... too soon" (about the man arrested in the road)

"Illegals illegitimate Druggies& Dope HEADS. Give them all the Fentanyl they want.."

"Blocking democrats and Mexicans, make for a better life... lol"

This isn't even the worst that usually show up. I managed to find these in a few minutes.

In short, how about we not get on a high horse about social issues when you're actively exploiting our community to inflame "engagement" for your publication?

Until then, I'm going to remain entirely skeptical of quick or naive solutions that erode the rights of the marginalized and dehumanize populations so our community won't look bad.

Photo by Bank Phrom on Unsplash