by Mark Dempsey
In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike from sleeping under bridges, begging in the street, and stealing bread. – Anatole France
In a recent political conversation, my (male) friends were clucking their tongues at the current epidemic of homelessness, telling me it was a shame and unprecedented. However, few mentioned its origins, and fewer still had a remedy—and, as women know, men always want to fix problems.
The specific policy suggestion in that conversation was term limits for legislators. That’ll make ’em honest!
But we’ve tried term limits in California, and it produces knowledgeable, unelected staff who actually run things, and a layer of transient, elected “useful idiots” (i.e. politicians) to insulate the unelected staff’s decision-making from the public. In short, it does not work as advertised and weakens the connection between the public and the government’s response. So much for men’s solutions!
The origins of the current attack on the poor probably began in ancient times, when poverty was interpreted as deserved punishment for bad behavior, and wealth was a sign of the god’s approval. This is the same kind of thinking that leads its adherents to believe they deserve to be born without serious health problems. After all, there are no accidents, only just desserts!
A more recent source of the rise of homelessness was well intended. JFK had a special needs sister and decided he would try to close the big “One-Flew-Over-the-Cuckoo’s-Nest” asylums, transferring patients to smaller facilities that could integrate them into their communities.
In a vote that Daniel Patrick Moynihan described as one of the most shameful in his political career, congress approved closing the asylums but did not fund the replacement housing, turning many patients out into the street. In California, Governor Ronald Reagan just closed the state asylums.
Science tells us that special needs schooling is most effective with eight or fewer students in classrooms, but the government doesn’t fund that either. On the other hand, the military gets more than it requests from congress and even “progressives” vote for that.
The asylum closures left the former patients “footloose and fancy-free”—free to self-medicate with both legal and illegal drugs. As one consequence, in 2016, the opioid epidemic produced more fatalities than the Vietnam war—in just that one year—and not just among former patients.
More origins of homelessness: In 1971, Richard Nixon stopped the federal government from building affordable housing—and federal programs were never generous in the first place. But hey, the poor deserve their poverty!
After cutting taxes on the wealthy roughly in half, and with his successor raising payroll taxes eightfold, Ronald Reagan cut HUD’s affordable housing budget by 75 percent. Could this impact our current lack of affordable housing and even wealth inequality? Gosh! I wonder!
In the ’90s, Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton conspired to “end welfare as we know it,” turning the LBJ-era poverty program, AFDC (Aid For Dependent Children), into TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families). While AFDC was a federal program, TANF is a block grant administered by the states.
So if states are stingy in distributing public assistance, they may not reduce poverty, but they can still use the money they save by not helping the poor for something else. Of those needing public assistance, 76 percent got AFDC, but only 26 percent got TANF. And only 22 percent of the TANF money actually reaches the poor.
LBJ’s “Great Society” war on poverty programs cut poverty in half while they lasted. The increase in current poverty is obvious from the number of beggars and homeless on street corners even in suburbia. Meanwhile, Phoenix, AZ, food banks report an 18 percent increase, year-over-year, in families relying on them for food in 2022, even after the height of the pandemic.
This generations-long attack on the poor—even those who deserved poverty—has finally got results. Sixty-five percent of seniors have only Social Security to fund their retirement.
Forty percent of the U.S. population doesn’t even have a $400 rainy day fund and must borrow or sell something to deal with emergencies like new tires. Building cities as sprawl means viable, unsubsidized transit is not available either, so the poor must own autos—in effect, a regressive tax.
The cumulative effect of these public policies has been an impoverished, desperate population, desperate enough to try crime. Even Forbes admits it: “Several studies have shown public assistance programs such as cash payments and housing aid can help reduce criminal activity.” So poverty begets desperation, and desperation begets drug addiction and crime.
As a testimonial to poor people’s commitment to morality, thanks to the generosity of the poor—and they are far more generous than the wealthy—crime has been in decline in recent years, despite the impoverishment and immiseration of the population.
“In the last five years Sacramento has seen decreasing violent crime and decline of property crime,” says City-Data.com. Notice that the website documents an increase in crime around the subprime-derivatives meltdown in 2007-8, so the economy at least correlates with crime rates.
Nevertheless, we read of increasingly desperate police confrontations—after all, they’re dramatic and headline-worthy. In response, the City of Sacramento just purchased an armored vehicle (“the Rook”) and the County just approved a $450 million addition to the jail, producing what amounts to a militarized homeless shelter and a replacement for those closed asylums.
In response to the increase in desperation, the U.S. has increased its police spending enormously, too. The U.S. population increased by 42 percent between 1982 and 2017. In that same period, spending on policing increased by 187 percent. Now, with 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. has 25 percent of its prisoners—five times the world’s per-capita average, and seven times more than the Canadians’ per-capita incarceration rates.
So…is Canadian crime worse than U.S. crime? Nope, it’s about the same. It does make some sense, though, since there are roughly a half million medical bankruptcies in the U.S. and zero in Canada. People in desperate situations adopt desperate solutions—even the desperate “solutions” of skid row or car-jacking.
All these attacks on the poor demonstrate the way crime is systemic, not just an individual problem. No Canadian has to start cooking meth to pay his spouse’s hospital bill (the plot of Netflix’s Breaking Bad series).
The U.S. has gone very far down this particular rabbit hole. Perhaps the next step is to change its motto from e pluribus unum (“From many, one”) to “The beatings will continue until morale improves.” This would have the virtue of being truthful because it’s been generations now since the American public’s sense of “justice”—actually, vengeance—has been harnessed to its attack on the poor.
Side note, you might read How Mental Health Care Is Near-Impossible to Get on Medicaid from the Intercept—reporting that implies that if you’re poor and have a mental illness, you’re just out of luck.