Marquette Warrior: The U.S. Does Not Have More Homeless People than Other Nations

Monday, May 21, 2018

The U.S. Does Not Have More Homeless People than Other Nations

Homelessness, like any other hardship, invites people to push an ideological agenda. Especially, homelessness in the U.S. invites people on the left to blame capitalism, or the American political culture, or a Republican incumbent administration.

One writer in the Huffington Post, for example, asks “How Well is American Capitalism Working?” and claims that:
If you ask the 15% of our population living in poverty, their answer is that they can’t find a decent job and they survive on food stamps, food kitchens, clothing handouts, and cheap housing or even homelessness.
And a letter writer to the New York Times asked:
As our own United States homeless population grows, the question arises whether the causes of homelessness can be explained by a transition to a harsher and crueler form of capitalism under the Bush-Reagan Administrations or, if not explicable by such a transition, is homelessness simply a necessary component to our present brand of capitalism?
This would imply that less “capitalistic” nations — socialist states in Europe, for example — should have lower rates of homelessness. Apparently, however, this is not so.

Cross National Data

The OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) compiles data on a large number of indicators across advanced industrial nations, and this includes data on homelessness.

The data do not show the U.S. having an especially large number of homeless.

For example, they show that 0.18% of the U.S. population to be homeless, as opposed to 0.25% of the population of the United Kingdom, 0.42% of the German population and 0.42% of the French population.

In the supposed socialist utopia of Sweden, 0.36% of the population is homeless, according to this tabulation.

How Do We Define Homelessness

Of course, any cross-national data must be questioned for comparability, and that is the case here.

The most basic definition of homelessness is:
Homelessness counts in most countries include rough sleepers, people living in accommodation for the homeless and in emergency temporary accommodation. . . .
This is fair enough. While “sleeping rough” (on a park bench, heating grate or in a subway) most certainly corresponds to our notion of homelessness, sleeping in a shelter where you are usually required to leave every morning does too.

But some nations define “homelessness” much more broadly. Sometimes, it includes the following:
  • People living in institutions: Including people who stay longer than needed in health institutions due to lack of housing; and people in penal institutions with no housing available prior to release
  • People living in non-conventional dwellings due to lack of housing : where accommodation consists of mobile homes, non-conventional building or temporary structure, and is used due to a lack of housing and is not the person’s usual place of residence
  • People living temporarily in conventional housing with family and friends due to lack of housing
Some of this is pretty ridiculous. If you stay in prison for a few extra days, you are not homeless, notwithstanding that you would rather be out. Living is a trailer is not being homeless either, even if you do get stereotyped as white trash.

And if you have been evicted and are sleeping on the couch at your sister and brother-in-law’s place, you are not homeless, no matter how much you would like your own pad.

More Comparisons

The OECD document includes a comprehensive list of the definitions of “homelessness” used in each nation, and allows us to make some rough comparisons.

And also note some senseless definitions. In Australia, for example, the “homeless” include:
People living in boarding houses (due to lack of suitable accommodation alternatives); people living in severely crowded dwellings.
Perhaps this broad definition is part of the reason Australia has 2.6 times the reported homeless population of the U.S. But it would be hard to argue that Australia has fewer homeless, even taking the different definitions into account.

Much the same analysis would apply to Sweden, which defines “homelessness” more broadly than the U.S, but reports twice as many people as being homeless. And also to Germany, with a broad definition of “homelessness,” but an estimate of 2.3 times as many homeless as the U.S.

But France, for example, defines “homelessness” pretty much the same way the U.S. does, but reports 22% more homeless people.

The United Kingdom

The definition “homelessness” in the U.K. is wordy, and apparently quite narrow.
Number of households who after applying for housing assistance are accepted by local authorities as being “Statutory homeless” (i.e. those who are unintentionally homeless and fall into a ‘priority need’ category. Somebody is statutorily homeless if they do not have accommodation that they have a legal right to occupy, which is accessible and physically available to them (and their household) and which it would be reasonable for them to continue to live in. It would not be reasonable for someone to continue to live in their home, for example, if that was likely to lead to violence against them (or a member of their family).
It seems unlikely that all (or perhaps even most) people who really are homeless would be among the “Statutory homeless.” Indeed a private organization estimated that in 2017 307,000 people were sleeping rough or in inadequate housing in the U.K. This compares to 57,750 households in the OECD data (but for England alone).

No matter what adjustments are made, the U.K. has at least as many — and probably more — homeless as does the U.S.


The homeless are not victims of capitalism. They are not even victims of structural changes in the economy. They are victims of their own bad behavior, including untreated clinical depression, substance abuse and involvement in criminal activity.

That does not mean they should not be helped, but it does mean they should not be enabled by liberal public policies. Simply providing “affordable housing” is just an enabler — at least, unless there is a set of fairly rigorous conditions attached. Allowing homeless encampments to despoil public streets and green space is another enabler.

Indeed, to help them a fair amount of coercion might be necessary, which would be justified for a population which, left to its own devices, lives a wretched existence.

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