Weblog on the Internet and public policy, journalism, virtual community, and more from David Brake, a Canadian academic, consultant and journalist
1 March 2006

In a recent New Yorker he looks at phenomena once thought to be normally distributed that are actually distributed according to the “power law” – for example ‘problematic’ homeless people, corrupt cops or polluting cars. In other words it turns out that in these cases a hard core cause most of the trouble, which calls for different public policy solutions – for example, giving a lot of help and support to the most ‘undeserving’ of the homeless (eg drug-addicted and/or mentally ill people). The argument here is that they cost the system so much anyway when they ‘go wrong’ that you can spend quite a lot on them and still come out ahead if their self-harming behaviour can be curbed.

Someone I know who has worked in emergency rooms was less sanguine. They suggested that these ‘lowest of the low’ were so damaged that they simply do not respond to any interventions and that public policy interventions should instead be used to help the large number of homeless people who are (as Gladwell points out) just ‘passing through’ homelessness in order to ensure they don’t return to that state.

P.S. Gladwell now has his own blog and has posted there about the power law article.

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