The typical view when it comes to human suffering in this country is icy in its realism. Hunger, Poverty, Underfunded Schools, and Sky-High College costs may be horrible, the thinking goes, but we just don’t have the money to do anything about them.
Solving these problems would be simply too expensive and therefore we must learn to tolerate the misery they cause. While this notion has its appeal for many, in so many cases, it is absolutely not true. Consider the problem of food insecurity.
In 2010, 16 percent of the U.S population did not have enough food to eat, a moral tragedy which costs society $167.5 billion every year. According to researchers from Brandeis University and the Federal Reserve, in their report “Hunger in America: Suffering We All Pay For” this expense comes principally from three sources.
First, hungry students underperform academically, which makes them more expensive to educate, as well as more likely to commit crimes and become dependent on the safety net. They often become tax eaters rather than taxpayers.
Second, when people are hungry, they get sick with a variety of ailments—headaches, iron deficiency, depression, and the like. These illnesses make them less productive workers, which harms their employers bottom line, and they use up a lot of healthcare, leading to strain on the Medicaid and Medicare programs.
Lastly charities spend billions trying to help alleviate hunger in society, funds that would otherwise go elsewhere.
Now here’s the kicker: while tolerating hunger eats $167.5 billion of our hard-earned dollars, ending this injustice through expanded nutrition programs, the researchers noted, would cost only half as much. That’s right, it is more expensive to let children starve than to buy them a meal. The moral thing to do is also the most fiscally conservative approach.
And we see this dynamic in other areas as well: it is for example less costly to enact universal health care than have citizens go uninsured; make college tuition-free instead of burdening kids with debt; and rehabilitate criminals instead of having a criminal justice system focused on retribution.
Some states have recognized this gorgeous truth— compassionate public policy saves money—and enacted laws that take it into account. Utah, for example, sought to solve its chronic homelessness problem in 2005 by trying an innovative strategy called “housing first.”
This approach emphasizes getting individuals into permanent shelter and then providing them with support to focus on their issues. According to its advocates, the cost of providing the homeless with housing would be cheaper than leaving them to the streets, where they spend much time in hospitals and the criminal justice system.
Over a decade later, that prediction has been proven correct, as Utah has reduced chronic homelessness by 91 percent, while saving millions in taxpayer dollars, according to state officials.
“I get probably two to five calls a week now, wanting to know how we did it, what’s unique about Utah,” says Lloyd Pendleton, the director of the state’s Homeless Task Force, “because it can be done.”
The thesis of my column should not be examined in a partisan fashion; it is simply what the data reveals. In so many instances, achieving social justice is cheaper than cruelty, and that’s reason to hope, for it means we can afford the cost of creating a better society.
Hungry children, homeless veterans, overburdened college students, parents dying for lack of health insurance, these injustices—and so many others—need not last forever.
Joshua Heath is a Valencia resident and a political science student at UCLA. He has served two terms as a delegate to the California Democratic Party.