Without the least bit of political or legislative action, at least there is a good deal of talk about the disappearance of the American middle class. The curious thing is that the middle class is not evaporating into the ranks of the idle rich but becoming poorer at an astonishing rate — but then again, almost nobody mentions poor people, either. So let’s do that. Let’s talk about Poor People. It just seems a good time for the discussion, between the annual paroxysm of self-indulgence called the holiday season and Congress’ decision to slash the food stamp program before doing anything about jobs or wages.
Shall we start with the poorest of the poor in this vastly wealthy country of ours, those who have not so much as roofs over their heads? At the end of 2013, as the stock market hit record highs, the number of homeless people remained fairly steady, at 634,000, give or take. That’s just the number of poor living under bridges or in cars, not those who require and/or receive assistance from friends, relatives or public sources. More than half are children.
We’ve come to accept this as a normal condition in America, and so it is. It’s disgusting. It’s morally shocking. But it’s normal, because we allow it to persist. The national conscience, if there is one, is inured to the subject.
There is a great deal of myth, but no real mystery, concerning the causes of homelessness. Up to and possibly more than half of adults who find themselves without shelter suffer from mental health issues. Many are victims of substance abuse, also an element of mental health. Still others have psychiatric disorders; many suffer from a combination. The rest are people who work or are willing to work but cannot make a living because wages are too low and rents are too high.
Fixing this is not easy, but the policy required to do so is simple.
First, we would reverse 40 years of policy that effectively abandoned service to the mentally ill. Back in the 1970s, the courts discovered the poorly kept secret that institutions for the mentally ill and developmentally disabled often were understaffed, underfunded black holes of despair and cruelty. So, in a typical overreaction, we “de-institutionalized” and “mainstreamed” just about everybody. The institutions didn’t necessarily get better, but did get smaller, which was cheaper, which made the skinflints known as Republicans happy. A lot of people got freedom, which made starry-eyed liberals happy.
Other things happened, too. Putting kids with Down syndrome and autism in regular classrooms at the same time we increased class sizes and added special help for gifted students made it impossible for teachers to serve entire classes. Putting schizophrenics on the street with no monitoring of medication guaranteed their homelessness.
Ironically, some of the starry-eyed actually want a guarantee of homelessness. They see it as a right, that some people prefer to live on the streets. California is leading the way in attempting to legislate rights for homeless people, including the privilege of sitting, sleeping and begging in public spaces. The movement is motivated only in part by the fact that the homeless are often harassed by authorities, but also in part by a desire to see people sleep where they like, the rest of us be damned.
This is crazy.
A sane policy would say this: If you literally don’t have sense enough to come in out of the rain, we’re going to do that for you. Of course, such a policy would require us to have places for people to stay – decent places where the formerly homeless would be protected from the violence and the degradation of life on the streets, and where — unlike the shelters run by religious organizations — they don’t have to submit to prayer, song and the rest of the humiliation heaped on top of those in terrible poverty.
A sane policy would, in other words, provide a proper place for everyone and then require that people not make human litter of themselves. It would recognize housing, food and health care as human rights. It would provide this when people could not sponsor it for themselves. It would provide them whether people are able to stay clean and sober or not. Some people can’t. But they are still members of the human race, our brothers and sisters, tragically stricken by ailments poorly understood but hardly uncommon.
To be comprehensive, a sane policy would also address the hundreds of thousands of working poor. If unskilled labor pays too little to underwrite high rents, something on the order of living-wage laws and rent controls would seem in order.
Until that happens, all we can do is subsidize people, which means taking money from people who have little, pass it momentarily through the hands of the poor, and lodge it in the hands of people who have a lot, like landlords and utility shareholders.
So when are those sane options going to be on the political table?