But the Worcester program goes a step beyond many of these initiatives, as the penalty for not complying is so great. If residents do as they’re told, they’ll go through a program that includes intensive case management and will get a job, earn some money, and move out of public housing. But if they can’t or don’t find work or enroll in classes, a worst-case scenario could see them kicked out of public housing, often the last thing between the very poor and a homeless shelter.
Is this the role government ought to be playing in people’s lives? John Stuart Mill condemned such efforts, writing, “The only purpose for which power may be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.”
People may make bad choices, Mill and others argue. But that’s one of the costs of a free society. And it’s not as though government intervention is risk-free: The government may make even worse decisions on people’s behalf. Or, when it treats them like children, why expect that they will ever act like adults?
But what if the government can step in and improve the lives of some of its most vulnerable citizens? What if people can’t achieve the American Dream without the government telling them how to go about it? Is it okay for the government to exercise its power in that case? In other words, what does it mean for Mill’s concept of a free society if the Worcester strategy works?
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Ray Mariano, the head of the Worcester Housing Authority, is accustomed to telling people how things should be run. He’s the oldest of nine children, and grew up in the very public-housing system he now runs. A Democrat, he served as the city’s mayor for four consecutive terms, from 1993 until 2001. When he became head of the housing authority, he upped police involvement on the properties and started cracking down on drug dealers, bad tenants, and various people on public-housing property who didn’t live there. He also installed license-plate cameras so that when crimes were committed he could review footage to see who was nearby.
I met Mariano in his office, which is on the ground level of a concrete public-housing tower near downtown Worcester. Above his desk, more than a dozen live-camera feeds from his public-housing properties, both inside and out, keep him up-to-date on capital-improvement projects, as well as the comings and goings of residents and visitors. Mariano, who speaks with a Boston accent and the self-assurance of a lifelong politician, sees public-housing residents as his charges, at one point referring to the children who live in public housing as “my kids.”
For decades, he tells me, policymakers have ignored the poor, forcing them to find their own way in a difficult world. This passivity on the part of the government has left public-housing residents dependent on the assistance and feeling “entitled to these benefits,” he said. His goal is to lead them away from that dependence, into self-sufficiency, which he believes will make them much happier in the long run.