Bryan Caplan  

Let Them Get Roommates

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A fun fact about the U.S. versus Europe is that poorest 25% of Americans have more living space than the average European. But some Americans have been left behind. Our most deprived citizens often sleep three to a room, eat prison-grade food, and share bathroom facilities with dozens of unhygenic strangers. They are known as... college students.

I know. I lived in a triple in the UC Berkeley dorms back in 90-91. I was the last guy to arrive, so naturally I got the top bunk. Not fun.

But who feels sorry for college students in a triple? No one, as best I can tell. They barely even feel sorry for themselves. They're just supposed to get used to it, to "suck it up," and they do. As long as they aren't contributing to society, they ought to concentrate on bettering themselves, not complain about the unfairness of it all.

A friend of mine who is a bishop in the Mormon Church tells me that before anyone can go on the church dole, they get a little advice from a Mormon financial planner. The planner takes a good look at the lifestyle of the needy, and frequently concludes that frugal living, not financial assistance, is the right answer.

As Econlog's resident Non-Bleeding Heart Libertarian, this sensible Mormon practice suggests a hard-boiled question. Why aren't (relatively) poor Americans expected to live like college students?

To put it more concretely: Before anyone starts collecting welfare, it is more than fair to ask them - for starters - to try to solve their own problem by taking on some roommates. Is it beneath their dignity to live like college students? I think not.

While I'm stepping on some sensitivities, I may as well point out a nice side benefit. If you choose your roommates wisely, you don't need the government to subsidize daycare just to get single moms back in the labor force. You've got a ready-made baby-sitting coop right in your own home. He probably doesn't want the credit, but I'd still like to thank Paul Krugman for the inspiration!


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TRACKBACKS (12 to date)
TrackBack URL: http://econlog.econlib.org/mt/mt-tb.cgi/222
The author at Crescat Sententia in a related article titled Housing and Humanity writes:
    Via Tyler Cowen I see Bryan Caplan's suggestion that before you get government housing assistance you ought to be required to take on some roommates, share a bathroom, and otherwise live the life of a college student. In principle I... [Tracked on March 26, 2005 1:08 PM]
The author at Jim's blog in a related article titled Let them get room mates. writes:
    In that it is genuinely difficult for the lowest income 25% to afford the rent, in that they really do face a danger of homelessness, they are in a sense quite genuinely poor - thanks to the efforts of do gooders to do them so much good that they move ... [Tracked on March 26, 2005 7:44 PM]
The author at Catallarchy in a related article titled Poverty Loves Company writes:
    And honestly, how could you not love Bryan Kaplan? Quote: As Econlog's resident Non-Bleeding Heart Libertarian, this sensible Mormon practice suggests a hard-boiled question. Why aren't (relatively) poor Americans expected to live like college ... [Tracked on March 26, 2005 9:10 PM]
The author at My Quiet Life in a related article titled DEleted writes:
    Click here to see the reason I deleted Econlog from my RSS aggregator.... [Tracked on March 27, 2005 12:17 AM]
COMMENTS (16 to date)
Matthew C writes:

The problem with this idea is that, in my experience, rental companies don't allow the dorm type living situation you describe. Every apartment lease I've signed has explicitly limited the number of people that could live there. For example, my last apartment had 3 bedrooms, but the max allowed to live there was 4.

I regularly hear about new and recent immigrants who ignore these limits and live several to an apartment; it's usually in the context of a landloard or more affluent neighbors complaining about it.

Amber writes:

I see nothing wrong with this at all, in fact it is a great idea. This reminds me of a similiar reaction I had in reading an article in Mothering magazine (a extremely liberal parenting mag) where they portrayed a woman who decided to quit her job and take welfare so that she could raise her two adolescent sons. (here's the link, if anyone's interested: http://www.mothering.com/articles/growing_child/family_society/welfare_warriors.html) They talked about how hard it was to live on welfare, and how she was doing it so that she could be sure that her boys wouldn't get into (any further) trouble and such. I just couldn't understand why she couldn't still work, and perhaps find another single mom for a housemate, work staggered shifts, and provide that after school supervision and bring down all of their housing and general support costs. I just couldn't understand why the first thing that popped into her head was to go on the dole, rather than to try and find some more creative solutions.

Stories like this are what made me cancel my subscription, even though I am a big fan of attachment parenting (which the magazine firmly supports)

P.S. Thanks for the bit about the Mormon church's financial consultation requirement, that is very interesting. What a great idea.

Mark Shroder writes:

You want the poor "to try to solve their own problem by taking on some roommates." They already do. Read any government publication on housing conditions. Crowding is very common among Hispanic and Indian (all right, Native American) populations.
There's another dimension to it when among these poor folk there are young children in the unit and the "roommate" is opposite sex to the custodial parent. Roommates also have to be screened for links to drugs, crime, and perversion. But the short of it is that your big idea has no policy implication. Actual poor people, like actual college students, are way ahead of you. If they see a benefit to a roommate, they've already got one. And if they don't see any benefit, odds are that no sane government would push them in that direction.

Gregory Rehmke writes:

Government regulations have limited many past options for poor people. Single Room Occupancy hotels used to house the poor in inner-cities. And many single people in the 1950s lived as borders. Not quite the same as roommates. Owners of large older homes would rent out rooms. A nice example is in the movie "The Day the Earth Stood Still." A mother and young son, and others, rent rooms, in the home that lead Michael Rennie decides to move into. Meals are shared in dining room, with cost no doubt included in the rent. It looks quite civilized, plus inexpensive. (The only downside with this example is that Michael Rennie was from another planet. Still, he was well-behaved.)

fling93 writes:

Whoa, I also lived in a triple in the UC Berkeley dorms, but in 1989-90. And I was also the last guy to arrive and got the top bunk. Of course, it was at Clark Kerr, which I think had significantly bigger rooms than Units 1-3. Of course, I was an EECS major, so I probably spent more time at the computer labs than in the dorm room.

Anyway, as a non-bleeding heart libertarian, I also see no problem requiring people to take on roommates before getting welfare. I know plenty of non-poor people with roommates (housing is quite expensive in the Bay Area). Heck, if you count my wife, I have a roommate (and a very messy one, at that). Not to mention the cat, who's always leaving her toys all over the place.

Foobarista writes:

A big problem is wear-and-tear on the building. If you actually build a building for this purpose (ie, a barracks or heavily-built dorm with the Stalinist cement-block construction used for lots of college dorms - ie Cheney Hall), this can work well. But most apartment buildings aren't built for this level of occupancy. And there's the big problem of parking - the cars could take up at least as much space as the people.

Also, many cities have laws about the max number of people/cars that can be around a building, or have laws that forbid overnight street parking, effectively limiting the number of working adults that can be in a building.

drew hutchison writes:

With reference to your previous post:

Public school students who are "engaged" are the ones most likely to go to college, are they not? I posit that they are also the individuals most likely to "suck it up," whereas the non-college-going individuals, who are more highly represented in the bottom income quartile, may therefore be inclined against cohabitation.

Randy writes:

An aside; room sharing is also how we used to take care of the elderly. Aging parents would move in with their children. One basic difference brought about by Social Security is that there are now more houses in the family - and it will be one of the first things to change back as the value of Social Security declines.

Gabriel writes:

Aren't you confusing living at higher density (i.e. smaller apartments) with living in the same room/ house? Europe has a comparable average household size to the US (~2.6), and Northern Europe far more one person households than the US.

Bob Knaus writes:

I've lived in a very poor neighborhood. The blunt facts are that the very same characteristics which make these people poor make them unattractive as room mates.

To take the example of a good friend of mine, would you want an emotionally volatile drug using former escort with a developmentally disabled baby moving in with you? Nope, didn't think so.

As it turns out, you can get more food on WIC than you need for one adult and one baby. So she was able to move in to a small room with an aging hippie couple. She provided most of the food for the household, thus freeing up more cash for beer and pot. It was always an interesting place to visit.

For more than a year she has wanted to move out on her own (you can imagine the personality conflicts in such a household) but the problem is that wages will reduce her WIC and other benefits. So she's been looking for under-the-table work, bartending or whatever. Apparently she's found it. I just got an e-mail from her a couple of days ago saying she'd finally moved into her own studio.

I do hope it's under-the-table and not under-the-covers work!

mcwop writes:

Hispanics already do this. Here in Baltimore the government is trying to stop the practice, because of a single house fire associated with this practice. Of course, there is no evidence that house fires are more common in these roomate living situations compared to other living situations.

Austin writes:

Let them move somewhere cheap. That is what I think. Too many people live in Berkeley. Too many people live in Manhatten. If people want cheap rents, move to Indiana, Kentucky, Illinois, etc.. There are many beautiful places in the heartland of our country. Why don't we encourage this more?

Rick Stewart writes:

If the question is should the government require people to find roommates, the answer is obviously no. If the question is should the government assume that a person with a lack of funds has or will or should lower costs by living collectively, the answer is obviously yes.

This matters, as 'poverty levels' must estimate how much money is needed to satisfy housing needs. If the government assumption is that people are in poverty unless they are living by themselves, poverty levels will be higher, and more Americans will be 'living in poverty.'

I have seen 'living wage' calculations. They appear amazingly reasonable, except they also appear to assume that a single person has to pay rent for his/her own apartment. Why? When I was poor, both during and for quite some time after my college days, the easiest way to become instantaneously less poor was always to reduce the cost of my rent, either by living in the most ramshackle building available or by finding roomates.

But I didn't need the government to tell me to do this, and I would have resented it if they had.

Speedwell writes:

And imagine, people are against marriages that include more than two contributing adults.

spencer writes:

Before you jump to a conclusion based on one economic fact maybe you should look into why that fact is what it is. As I have heard many times Americans live in beautiful homes and work in poor factories while Japanese live in poor homes and work in beautiful factories.

The US has long used public policy to subsidize housing and for that and other reasons the US has much cheaper housing then other countries. The fact that US housing is much cheaper then European housing is not brought into this discussion at all. While I do not have the exact data the fact that the poorest 25% of Americans have more living space than the average European is probably almost completely irrelevent to anything. Moreover, I am willing to bet that the image you have of the poor is a black family living in a poor urban environment. But just as many of the poor also live in rural America where housing is much cheaper.

In Canada morgage interest payments are not tax deductible and is the biggest factor explaining why the average home in Canada is smaller than the average home in the US. This is just one example of the many thing I am talking about.

Lawrance George Lux writes:

Bryan,
American Poor is basically equivalent to Unemployable; the later being the result, in overwhelming instance, of poor socialization skills. I think you want to quadruple the Murder rate. lgl

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