Joe was in and out of prison several times after first being sentenced for an unarmed drug-related robbery when he was 18. Each time he was released, he swore he was going to turn his life around, only to end up violating parole and being sent back to prison. Mary was an alcoholic who had lived on the street for 25 years. In reality her life revolved around repeated short-term stays in homeless shelters, jails, hospital emergency rooms, and apartments of family members – as well as on the street, under bridges, or in the woods.

While it is tempting to view Joe and Mary as examples of individual human tragedy (which they are), we can help them more effectively if we also understand the policy decisions that shape their lives. Policy makers who seek to protect society from people struggling with substance abuse often end up becoming addicts themselves. They become addicted, albeit unwittingly, to quick fix solutions which temporarily address social problems but undermine society’s ability to implement more fundamental and permanent solutions.

One example of this is society’s dependence on incarceration as the solution to people’s fear of violent crime (often drug-related). Another example is our dependence on shelters as a solution to the problem of people who are homeless (including many who suffer from substance abuse).

In both cases:

  • People tend to make decisions with the best of intentions.
  • The quick fix is supported because it works in the short run, e.g. to reduce people’s fear of crime or to give homeless people a roof over their heads.
  • More fundamental solutions exist. For example, targeted community development is a more effective solution to the problem of violent (often drug-related) crime because it addresses the underlying conditions which lead to such crime, and the problem tends to be concentrated in relatively few poor urban neighborhoods across the country. Housing First has been demonstrated to be a more sustainable way of ending homelessness.
  • Dependence on the quick fix makes it more difficult to implement the fundamental solution. For example, both prisons and shelters reduce visibility of the problems they seek to address and thus lower social pressure to deal with these problems more fundamentally. Both drain resources from implementing more fundamental solutions. Both create additional problems for the targeted populations, for example, challenges in re-entering society for those released from prison and eligibility restrictions for homeless people seeking a permanent place to live. Furthermore, both quick fixes create economic incentives for certain groups to perpetuate their use, e.g. the prison “industry” with respect to crime prevention and the shelter “industry” with respect to coping with homelessness.

Those familiar with system archetypes will recognize this dynamic as “Shifting the Burden.” We inadvertently become dependent on a quick fix to deal with a problem instead of a more fundamental, albeit longer term, solution. It is the archetype of addiction.

How can we help policy makers to make better decisions and deal with such problems more effectively – and less expensively – over time? What we know about high leverage interventions for Shifting the Burden can point us in the right direction:

  1. Surface and challenge the assumptions which lead people to implement the quick fix. For example, honor people’s fears of violent crime and show how get-tough prison sentences fail to reduce such crime in the long run. With respect to the homeless, show how shelters unwittingly perpetuate the problem by enabling people to cope with being homelessness instead of find permanent housing. For a more complete set of steps to help people change the way they think, read the blog Rethinking Your Path to Success.

  2. Ask people what they deeply care about and support them to create a vision of their aspirations being fully realized. For example, most people want to live in peace – not fear – and to feel like they can move about safely. Those dedicated to helping the homeless can envision a world where everyone can live with a permanent roof over their head and a literally identifiable place in society. Once the vision becomes clear, use it as the motivation for implementing the more fundamental solution.

  3. Where it is impossible or undesirable to fully eliminate the quick fix, try to design it in such a way that it supports rather than undermines the fundamental solution. For example, prison is most likely a required solution for some people who pose a serious danger to society, yet it can be designed more to rehabilitate than to punish and thereby effectively facilitate successful reentry of prisoners (95% of whom are ultimately released) into society. Homeless shelters might always be needed to temporarily house people who need a place to stay, yet they can be deliberately structured to quickly transition their residents into a more permanent home.

While understandable tendencies toward policy addiction exist, such dependence not only reinforces individual problems but also costs our society in unnecessary ways.