Word Count: 2522Our social safety net has a hole in it.
The fibers of the net aredecaying; the hole is getting bigger. More people are falling through,and the people with the least strength are holding the most of theweight. Three to four million Americans are homeless according to theU.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 5.5% cannot find jobsaccording to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, and the figure is overtwice that in the 20-24 year old age group, according to the Departmentof Education. A very slim minority of these people are sucking off thesystem, but the vast majority just had a bad break.
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Such is the story of Peter and Megan, as told by author Jonathan Kozolin his Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Book Award winner Rachel and HerChildren: Homeless Families in America. Peter was a carpenter and shewas a homemaker who raised their five children. They lived in a neat,working class apartment building in New York City. Peter didconstruction for public housing projects, and had a vast array oftechnical skills and tools: I did carpentry. I painted. I could dowallpapering. I earned a living.
We spent Sundays walking with ourchildren on the beach. It may sound like this was a happy family,living the American Dream. Perhaps they were — they were selfsufficient for all of the 12 years that they had been married, they hada steady income, a close and loving family, a home, and a chance fortheir children to do even better than they had done. Then the firestruck. They came racing home after hearing the news, only to find thateverything had been destroyed.
The children lost their pet dog and cat,Megan lost her grandmothers china, but Peter perhaps lost the most: histools. Since the fire, he has not had a job, because a carpenter withouttools might as well not have eyes. He explained that for every job hehad, he would add a new tool to his collection.
But they all went up inthe blaze. When Kozol first met them, they were living in a welfarehotel in New York, where they had been living for two years. They cantget out because federal assistance programs (better known as welfare)tell them that their family limit for an apartment is $366 a month –this with seven family members living in New York City. (In comparison,thats about the rock bottom price for a week in a New York City oneroom motel.) In their two room apartment, the entire place is fallingapart, with crumbling walls, no working toilets, and a stench Kozoldescribes as overpowering.A year later, Kozol meets Peter and Megan again. This time theyreliving on the street, and their children have been taken away, all todifferent foster homes, because, Peter says White children are indemand by the adoption agencies.
The social safety net designed to helppeople who are down on their luck: where is it for Peter and Megan, notto mention their children? And without a safety net, how can we expectpeople to fulfill this American Dream? Evidently, we cant. Its asgood as dead.Peter and Megan are real people. This is a real story. For as long asanybody can remember, weve been pounded by success stories of theAmerican Dream.
But for every Colin Powell, Lee Iacocca, Bob Dole, orArnold Schwartzenegger, there are dozens, if not hundreds of Peters andMegans. And as long as there are people who want jobs and cant getthem, as long as children live on the streets because of no fault oftheir own, as long as the value of a dollar for the worker keepsdeclining, we cant really say that the American Dream is a reality.The American Dream doesnt have a set definition. It used to meanhaving a husband who worked and provided for his family, a wife whoraised the children, and for every generation, a chance to do betterthan your parents and to have your children do even better than you. Buttoday a new definition of the dream is in order. It basically comes downtoday to the knowledge that if you, as President Clinton says, workhard and play by the rules, you will be able to provide food, clothing,shelter, medical care, education, and a few pleasures for your family.
First, though, society needs to get its proverbial house in order. As asociety we need to make certain that some things are brought back to thetable if we want to restore the dream, specifically:· Job stability – Without a steady source of income, its impossible tohave a budget on which to base how you allot your money, and obviously asteady cash flow is the only way to purchase the necessities.· A superior pubic education system – In order to get ahead, you have tohave an education. In order for people to allow their children to dobetter than they did, their children have to have more education. Someprograms like a voucher system that would jeopardize the publiceducation system are threats to the American way of life because theystrip public schools of their income base and direct it to private andparochial education, which should only be subsidized by parents, theprivate sector, and the countrys religious institutions that we give atax-exempt status to for this reason among others. Some would say thatthe public education system has failed, that the buildings resembleprisons more than schools, that there is incessant violence, and a wholehost of other complaints, but they can all be fixed as soon as we starttaking care of the underclass that we created. It has become aself-perpetuation situation and a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Certainlynobody expects there to be an American Dream without a firm educationalbasis, and certainly nobody believes that our country would have beenbetter off if we has never had publicly subsidized education.· Dollar power for the worker – Inflation must be low and the dollarmust remain strong in a world market. Almost all workers are now also incompetition with every other worker in the world. Purchasing power mustbe kept high for the working class, and the minimum wage must be enoughon which to support a family.
According to Harvard economics professorLarry Katz, the budget would be balanced today if real wages had realincreased at the same rate over the last two decades as they had overthe two and a half before that, all other factors remaining the same. Inaddition, the dollar cannot remain strong without balanced internationaltrade and an internal stimulation of the economy. Tariffs are ahistorically useful tool for restoring trade imbalances. They add moneyto the federal budget while encouraging Americans to buy domesticallymade products and sending a strong message to companies that operatesweatshops in places like Haiti, Indonesia, El Salvador, and Sri Lanka,all places where popular brands like Nike, Reebok, Structure, TommyHilfiger, Guess, and Liz Claiborne have factories. These sweatshops bothdeprive their employees of basic human rights but cost Americans jobs.
· A message of hope from public officials – The government must see theAmerican Dream as a viable possibility, or else they will plan forfailure and self-destruction.· And finally, a net to fall onto as needed. Every time someone switchesjobs, has an illness, has an unforseeable disaster, or falls between thecracks, we cant expect him or her to start all over again. The wholepurpose behind this safety net is to allow people to tread water for afew minutes when they need it the most. Its seldom a way of life,except for people that fall through the gaping hole in the center.
It will be impossible to attain these goals without some form ofgovernment intervention. Conservatives talk about the heavy hand ofsocialism like it was the Antichrist. This will not lead to governmentregulation of every facet of our lives; it will merely set up some newprograms, eliminate some old ones, and restructure the existing ones topatch the hole so that the net can catch people and help them rebound. * * * The Homeless Voices Project is a project sponsored by the NationalCoalition for the Homeless that gets the stories of the homeless to showthe more fortunate what theyre going through.
The best way to expresshow the dream is failing is by telling the stories of those that it hasfailed for in their own words, the words of the men and women who feelthe pain of desertion by the country that promised to help make themstrong. (The actual voices of these people can be heard on the Internetat http://nch.ari.net/vocpage1.html using Netscape, MS-Explorer, or NCSAMosaic with the appropriate helper applications.) Every one of thesepeople has been failed by one of the tenets of the dream. Mike, likePeter, is a construction worker.
“I’m a construction worker, unemployed at the moment, and living at ashelter. There’s three or four guys who are on the same project with me,who live there. The situation here in Washington is that there areno.
…no strong unions or regulations for putting up these governmentbuildings and as a result, we just make enough to basically feedourselves. And..
.by then, the job is over. And then we have to look foranother one which may be a year from now, and it’s just not…possiblefor us to get into the .
..the permanent world that most people are in.And most people are laying people off instead of hiring, there’s just nopermanent jobs available.
The best you can do is a temporary one. So, wego from one temporary situation to another, and never manage to getenough money together…
to… to do anything…for ourselves in apermanent way.
So it’s kind of a self-perpetuating situation.”I don’t own a car… The recreation, if you want to call it that, ismostly with the church I belong to. I go out to their activities. Wehave picnics..
.evening activities– tutoring, things likethat. And that’s what I do in the evenings. It’s good to get awayfrom…from the hopelessness that most people like myself have to dealwith twenty-four hours a day.
“So, hopefully it won’t always be like this, but I don’t see anythinghappening to change it right now.”Mike is one of the lucky ones. He can at least work from time to time,and make some money. But there is no way that he can move up in theworld when he cant even afford a place to live. The conventional wisdomis to sacrifice, but where is that sacrifice to come from? Withcorporate America restructuring (read: laying off and firing), it hasbecome impossible for people like Mike to enjoy the first part of thedream: job stability. And when he has a job, his dollar is worth theleast its been worth for the working class since the Eisenhoweradministration.Angela had a job, paid her taxes, and played by the rules.
But a stringof unfortunate events put her living in a cardboard box in Manhattan.She is educated, hard-working, and thoughtful. But she, like so many,slipped a little bit and there was nothing to catch her.”Hello everyone, my name is Angela Owens, and I am homeless. I want youto know that homelessness can…
happento anyone. It can happen toyou, it happened to me. I had three years of college. I worked two jobsfor four years, and things happen..
. and that is one of the reasons whyI am homeless. Uh.., you don’t necessarily have to be mentallyincompetent, you don’t necessarily have to be handicapped.
Things canhappen, whether you have a silver spoon in your mouth, or you are justbelow the poverty line. You can become homeless.”Paul Deitrich is an African-American man who saw his minimum wage jobgo from one on which he could take care of himself to one where he couldbarely scrape by and have no real savings to speak of. Then that jobbottomed out on him, he got his two weeks notice, and he was on thestreet within a month.
Both the lack of job stability and the lack ofdollar power contributed to his fall. And there is no net to help himget back up — how can you apply for a job when you dont have a phonenumber, address — or even any clean clothes?”It’s a real tough job…to pay the high cost of rent–on minimum wage,or a small pension. It’s really almost impossible.
The economic bindthat people are in, who have real small incomes, or no incomes at all isunbelievable. I remember in the last years of Dr. King’s life, he movedaway from social commodation (sic) issues and concentrated more oneconomic issues in the South–in terms of supporting the organization ofhospitals and garbage workers to raise the minimum wage to help removethis bind. The bind got worse, because nowadays with computerization andautomation, the whole strata of lower level jobs has been completelyeliminated. And Dr. King, in the last years of his life, was not onlyinterested in that, he was organizing at that time a poor peoples’encampment to dramatize the terrible bind the lower levels of oursocieties are in. And in fact, he had begun to formulate a slogan, whichmight describe whats happening to hundreds of thousands of people herein the United States. And that slogan waswritten: “Unbridled Capitalism is Economic Terrorism”.
.. And we have tolive with that. And it drives many of us to despair–and behind thatdespair, we turn to those things that numb our despair… “Similar to the enclosure system at the end of feudalism, when the bigland owners realized they could make far more money by driving the serfsoff the land and growing sheep for the factories.
And the cities inNorthern Europe filled up with many, many hundreds of thousands ofpeople who had a rural culture, and didn’t know how to deal with theurban culture at all. And the despair got so great. That is when in thehistory of the world alcoholism became epidemic–out of that despair.
And it seems like we’re seeing a similar, similar situation now.”And when youre homeless, where do you wash your clothes? When yourehomeless, where do you clean yourself? The good God-fearing women in thechurches provide us with food, which is a great blessing. When you lookfor a job, where do you tell them to call you back? When you make phonecalls at a public phone, you might lose at least one out of fourquarters…
…Where do you get a drink in this kind of weather?”Society has truly abandoned the people who can be heard the least.
Butif we ignoreany longer, the middle class will erodeinto poverty one family at a time, and then, and only then, America willnot be able to recover from what it will have become.