Monday, December 26, 2011

Punishing the Poor

¡Hola mi Gente!
Merry post-Creeka and all that. Personally, I’ve been having a hard time distracting myself with the glitter while children go hungry or don’t have a place to sleep…

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Government has to start living within its means, just like families do. We have to cut the spending we can't aford so we can put the economy on sounder footing...
 -- President Obama, weekly radio address, July 2, 2011

Yesterday I posted the following Facebook status update:

Before you post about all your gifts, consider that today one third -- ONE THIRD -- of children in the US are homeless.

A contact correctly pointed out that my figure -- that one-third of all children in the US are homeless -- was wrong and he posted a link to a credible source. I gotta respect that. In fact, if we go by official estimates, my figure grossly overestimates child homelessness. (h/t Paul P.)

I’m usually more careful about my statistics, so no excuses. Still, yesterday was Christmas and I was running around, and what I should have posted was that child homelessness has risen and represent one-third of the homeless population. If we take the “official” homeless figure for children at 1.6 million children each year. To put it in perspective that equates to more than 30,000 homeless children each week and over 4,400 each day.

There are two things I want to explore a little further. One is that there is no concrete way to count the homeless. So the correct homeless figures vary widely, most will say that the figure stands at anywhere between 600,000-1.5 million. That’s a huge margin of error.

The National Coalition for the Homeless points out:

Many people call or write the National Coalition for the Homeless to ask about the number of homeless people in the United States. There is no easy answer to this question and, in fact, the question itself is misleading. In most cases, homelessness is a temporary circumstance -- not a permanent condition. A more appropriate measure of the magnitude of homelessness is the number of people who experience homelessness over time, not the number of “homeless people.”

Studies of homelessness are complicated by problems of definitions and methodology. (here)
Of interest to me, and to those who actually study homelessness, are the children of families who are living doubled up with friends and families because they have no place to stay. These aren’t counted as “homeless” and don’t qualify for homeless services. Furthermore, there are the families who have dropped off the grid entirely, living on the precarious margins of society with no hope. There the families who have no way of being contacted, therefore studies, many of which rely in part on telephone surveys, never count them.

Therefore, if we expand the definition of homelessness in order to better understand and explore it, my one-third figure, while admittedly still a gross overestimation, is not as much of an exaggeration as one would think.

In the interest of better articulating my point, let me use a related issue, poverty. If we use the accepted norm for measuring poverty, we find that nearly 15 million children in the United States -- 21% of all children -- live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level -- $22,050 a year for a family of four. However, the way we measure poverty is woefully inadequate and obsolete. For example, research shows that, on average, families need an income of about twice that level to cover basic expenses. Using this standard, 42% of children live in low-income families (here). Notice that using a more rigorous measure of poverty causes the poverty rate to double. It doesn’t take a social scientist to understand the relationship between poverty and homelessness, so I have to wonder just how much of an exaggeration is my one-third figure.

Among the 21 most affluent nations, the United States has the highest percentage of poor children. In fact, our rate is twice that of the country next in line. And contrary to the demonizing and racializing of the poor by the idiots on the right, most of these children have parents who work, but low wages and unstable employment leave their families struggling to make ends meet. Poverty sentences children to live on the margins as it impedes the ability to learn and contributes to social, emotional, and behavioral problems. Poverty is a major factor in poor health and is correlated to mental health. Risks are greatest for children who experience poverty when they are young and/ or experience deep and persistent poverty.

What to do? What’s needed is the exact opposite of the austerity budgets favored by Obama and conservative politicians in the US and Europe. More government spending and tax cuts targeted at the working class, beyond what President Obama has proposed, will surely make the deficit larger and drive up debt. But the post World War II ratio of GDP to debt in 1946 was at 109% -- a record. This was followed by two of the strongest decades of economic growth in U.S. history.

FDR, who reneged on his initial promise to balance the budget and initiated the New Deal instead once declared, “to balance the budget in 1933, or 1934, or 1935 would be a crime against the American people. Unfortunately, the biggest obstacle to day is that poverty in America has been racialized. The color of poverty is black and brown and it’s far easier to demonize, as conservatives do, the shiftless black and brown hordes of poor who multiply like rats and who have taken “our” country away from “us.”

This is what is meant when teabaggers mewl about “taking our country back.”

Never mind that this perception is false and there are multitudes of poor, hungry, and homeless children who happen to be white, as long as the mainstream political narrative can paint the issue in stark racial tones, Americans in the US won't identify with the plight of the poor. When the right cries “class warfare” their argument is little more than a thinly veiled racial slur. It’s how they get the white working class and the culture warriors on their side. Because this strategy is itself so deeply irrational, it’s inevitable that conservatism would become poisoned by it. Essentially, American conservatism is little more than a primal scream about its own demons and imaginary hells. Who benefits? The 1% percent who pick their pockets while they vent about fetuses and sex.

Without a champion or the political will to brand balancing the government budget as a “crime against the American people,” today’s crisis will likely drag on for more than a decade as economic hardship mounts for more and more of us -- especially our children.

My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…

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