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In 2008, economist Thomas Sowell claimed in a newspaper article:

Working in a homeless shelter is widely regarded as “community service” — as if aiding and abetting vagrancy is necessarily a service, rather than a disservice, to the community.
Is a community better off with more [homeless] people not working, hanging out on the streets [...]?

[...] feeding [homeless] people who refuse to work.

(emphasis mine)

There are many claims in that segment, but this question is only about the last statement that homeless people refuse to work.

Is there any study proving such claim?

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    The article isn't exactly recent. Would you consider studies that are covering the more recent developments a valid answer to your question, or should answers be restricted to studies up to 2008?
    – Schmuddi
    Jun 30 at 5:35
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    It's just a loaded value judgement about people who are out of work. It's a very sweeping statement that such people "refuse to work". Further up it is even more loaded: Is a community better off with more people not working, hanging out on the streets, aggressively panhandling, urinating in the street, leaving narcotics needles in the parks where children play? It's a classic argument fallacy. Jun 30 at 8:11
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    Another example of the bias is in "aiding and abetting vagrancy". Jun 30 at 8:48
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    The linked article is little more than a rant. It's a bit rich of the author to accuse others of having "the arrogance of imposing your own notions". Jun 30 at 10:27
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    Honestly, someone who has spent any amount of time getting to know homeless people in the USA should know this is false. The barriers to "getting a job" are often so high as to be essentially unattainable, and even the jobs that aren't too picky tend to not pay a living wage. It's not like the 1950's where you could just wander into town and get a basic job at the local factory or quarry that pays well enough to get an apartment above the bowling alley and below the other bowling alley. You have to have references, ID, and don't get started if you have a criminal record. Jun 30 at 10:42

2 Answers 2

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It is a myth (at least in 2019)

A significant portion of homeless people do have jobs—they just cannot afford to pay rent. Some receive disability income due to physical or mental problems but still cannot afford rent. For those wanting to work—a common refrain among those interviewed by my research team—the complications of applying for a job with no address, no clean clothes, no place to shower, and the stigma of being homeless (or having a criminal record), make such individuals far less competitive in the low-wage job market.

(emphasis mine)

The 12 Biggest Myths about Homelessness in America by the New York University


Wikipedia hints that working does not prevent homelessness and some of the major causes of homelessness impact workers (sources are from 2001, 2004, 2005, 2008 and 2009):

  • Lack of sufficient urban housing projects to provide safe, secure, and affordable housing to the financially underprivileged. Additionally for low wage workers rents can be unaffordable in areas where their workplace is located.
  • [...]
  • Redevelopment and gentrification activities instituted by cities across the country through which low-income neighborhoods are declared blighted and demolished to make way for projects that generate higher property taxes and other revenue, creating a shortage of housing affordable to low-income working families, the elderly poor, and the disabled.
  • [...]

(emphasis mine)

United States Conference of Mayors, "A Status Report on Hunger and Homelessness in America's Cities: a 27-city survey", December 2001.

"A Status Report on Hunger and Homelessness in America's Cities" (PDF). December 2005. pp. 63–64. Archived from the original (PDF) on December 30, 2008.

Vanneman, Reeve, "Main Causes of Homelessness" Archived August 22, 2009, at the Wayback Machine, University of Maryland

Cf. Levinson, Encyclopedia of Homelessness, article entry on Causes of Homelessness: Overview by Paul Koegel, pp. 50–58.

Center for Housing Policy: Paycheck to Paycheck Archived April 24, 2005, at the Wayback Machine


A quick note on Thomas Sovell. He writes primarily from a libertarian perspective, though he dislikes being labelled ideologically. His philosophy made him particularly influential to conservatives. In this article he is pushing a common wrong conservative doxa.

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  • Illegal immigrants seem to do really well finding work having even less to go on than homeless people. Plus, they all team up to buy a house together to reduce the cost. It seems per those points, where there is a will there is a way.
    – yters
    Jul 22 at 20:50
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There is a fact sheet PDF about homelessness published by the National Homelessness Law Center

Homelessness in America: Overview of Data and Causes

This states

Causes of homelessness

  • Insufficient income and lack of affordable housing are the leading causes of homelessness.
  • In 2012, 10.3 million renters (approximately one in four) had “extremely low incomes” (ELI) as classified by HUD. In that same year, there were only 5.8 million rental units affordable to the more than 10 million people identified as ELI. Additionally, only 31 out of every 100 of these affordable units were actually available to people identified as ELI.
  • After paying their rent and utilities, 75% of ELI households end up with less than half of their income left to pay for necessities such as food, medicine, transportation, or childcare.
  • The foreclosure crisis also played, and continues to play, a significant role in homelessness: In 2008, state and local homeless groups reported a 61% rise in homelessness since the foreclosure crisis began. Approximately 40% of families facing eviction due to foreclosure are renters; the problem may continue to worsen as renters represent a rising segment of the U.S. population.
  • For women in particular, domestic violence is a leading cause of homelessness.
  • According to the most recent annual survey by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, major cities across the country report that top causes of homelessness among families were: (1) lack of affordable housing, (2) unemployment, (3) poverty, and (4) low wages, in that order. The same report found that the top four causes of homelessness among unaccompanied individuals were (1) lack of affordable housing, (2) unemployment, (3) poverty, (4) mental illness and the lack of needed services, and (5) substance abuse and the lack of needed services.

So it is clear that "refusal to work" is not the main cause of homelessness.

And in the year of publication of the OP's story 2008, bullet point 4 mentions that a rise in homelessness is attributable to a foreclosure crisis.

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