Homelessness and Narrative Thinking

by Reihan Salam

Caring for the homeless is difficult under the best circumstances, but it is more difficult still when homeless individuals are fall in and out of drug and alcohol abuse, as Nicole Gelinas explains in a short but information-dense New York Post column. During his mayoral tenure, Michael Bloomberg pursued a number of strategies to address homelessness, some of them more successful than others. Gelinas points out Bloomberg’s Homebase initiative, which provided financial assistance to families facing eviction; she observes that spending on homeless services has doubled on his watch; and that a substantial share of families that show up at New York city shelters (11.1 percent) are from outside of the five boroughs. Yet Andrea Elliott’s Dasani series in the New York Times offers a very different portrait of Bloomberg’s efforts. (It should go without saying that even the longest piece of narrative non-fiction can’t capture all complexities of the homelessness challenge; the more interesting question is how storytelling is used to yield a certain kind of response.)

Nicole’s column reminds me of Reid Hastie’s critique of narrative thinking:

[N]arratives give us a false sense of understanding and control, when they are really mere redescriptions of selected subparts of the events to which they refer. Once we have a good narrative summary, we have the illusion that we could have intervened and controlled outcomes, or could have predicted what in hindsight seems to be an obvious outcome. But, unlike valid causal explanations that support informative forecasts and suggest ways to change events further down the causal stream, narratives lack these basic properties of true causal explanations.

Narratives also tend to be dominated by a few major actors, and faux explanatory power is derived from simplistic interpretations of those actors’ characters and motives. And the universal human illusion that consciously accessible thoughts are in the driver’s seat and controlling our own actions means that the salient actors in a narrative we want to understand are attributed information and incentives to a greater degree than is warranted.

Just as Tyler Cowen argues that marketing (broadly understood) is the paradigmatic job of the future, I tend to think that the (closely related) making of narratives is the job of the future, as well-crafted narratives are a powerful tool for manipulating behavior, for good or ill. For example, if we write a story about homelessness that emphasizes the innocence of a child and juxtaposes poverty and dysfunction against the consumption habits of gentrifiers, we will push you one way; if we emphasize the role of alcohol and drug abuse, and the resources devoted to meeting the needs of the homeless and the dedication of (or at least the dedication of some of) the public servants who work with them, we will push you another way.