Yucky Framing: “Cracking Down” on Homelessness

According to the Washington Post, members of the Trump administration are in California where they toured an unused FAA facility with a view towards converting it into housing for the homeless.

You can argue about the administrations motivations for this move, its ability to address the problem, the wisdom of using an FAA facility and so on, but finding a place for people who cannot afford homes seems like a worthy enough goal.

What struck me about the newspaper coverage, however, was how this project was described. Trump is pushing for “a major crackdown” on homelessness, the report said.

It is not a “plan to help,” “an anti-poverty initiative” or “a major effort.” No, it is a “crackdown.”

This is not the kind of language we generally use when referring to people who have suffered setbacks and need help. You would not be likely to “push for a major crackdown” on people losing their homes to foreclosure, or a “crackdown” on people not earning enough to pay their medical bills, or a “major crackdown” on people being laid off from their jobs.

By calling it a “crackdown” we’re being asked to see homeless people through a criminal lens. This makes the issue not how we can address the underlying issues and the system that leaves so many people unable to afford a roof over their heads to a problem of these people annoying those of us with homes by sleeping in places that we would enjoy more without their presence. Put another way: the problem is not that they have no place, it is that they’re in our public space.

I find myself thinking of that famous Anatole France line “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

Of course, having people sleeping rough in public spaces, or camped in tent cities, poses many complex problems for both the homeless and the people who have other uses for those spaces. The question is, is criminality the best and most useful way to frame and address the problem?



Compassion..gives the person who feels it pleasure even in the very act of ministering to and succouring pain.”-J..B. Mozley, Sermon at Oxford University, 1876

3330819045_6234b27d08_oSince writing yesterday’s post, I have been unable to shake a sort of existential sadness at the condition of, for want of a more secular word, the American soul. There is just something about Mick Mulvaney’s attempt to redefine “compassion” as not supporting Meals on Wheels that has played on my mind.

The word “compassion” comes from Latin roots com meaning together and pati to suffer. Compassion is to “suffer with” someone. It has been part of our lexicon since English looked like this: “Huanne on leme is zik oþer y-wonded. hou moche zorȝe heþ þe herte and grat compassion y-uelþ.” It has always conveyed a sense of fellow-feeling for someone who suffered and a desire to do something to alleviate that suffering. As the Oxford English Dictionary puts it: “The feeling or emotion, when a person is moved by the suffering or distress of another, and by the desire to relieve it; pity that inclines one to spare or to succour.”

Compassion is recognizing that a home-bound senior suffers and finding a way to alleviate some of that suffering, by delivering meals. What does it mean then when the perspective is shifted so that the home-bound senior is essentially accused of not being compassionate to the person who is asked to help?

Mulvaney likes to use the rhetorical device of casting the tax payer as a West Virginia Coal miner or “a single mother from Detroit” when the real beneficiaries of the budget he is promoting would seem to be the wealthy, military contractors and border wall builders. (Salon has a good analysis of who the budget is designed to benefit. It sure ain’t single mothers in Detroit.) And by the way, as someone who grew up and lived most of her life in suburban Detroit, I’m getting tired of my region being caricatured in the popular press as an island of urban poverty surrounded by a sea of “rust belt” working class Trump voters.

One of the most enduring images for me of the financial crisis of 2008 was an attractive, young woman with a satisfied smile on her face, holding a large sign that read “Your mortgage is not my problem.” The sign makes a virtue of non-compassion. It states a flat refusal to suffer with. “Your pain does not touch me,” it says, “I will not be moved by it.”

There is some element of our culture, an element that is now ascendant, that fears that in trying to relieve suffering, someone undeserving might get some of the aid. Some of us would rather let everyone starve than risk feeding someone who could get food for himself.

The question at the heart of all of this is what do we owe one another as fellow citizens, as neighbors, as fellow human beings?

It especially confuses me when the virtue of non-compassion is preached by someone calling himself a “Christian.” (Mulvaney is Roman Catholic.) The earliest Christian writings we have are Paul’s epistles. Scholars generally think that Thessalonians and Galatians were the first two books of the New Testament when arranged in chronological order. In Galatians, Paul recounts the details of a theological dispute he had with James who was the central figure in the early Jesus movement. The Galatians did not know whether they were to listen to James’ representatives or to Paul. They differed on the question of whether a gentile Christ-follower had to be circumcised in order to be a full member. James thought they did, Paul did not. In the end, they came to something of an agreement. Paul could preach to gentiles. “They desired only that we should remember the poor, the very thing which I was also eager to do,” Paul wrote. (Galatians 2:10)

So helping the poor was central to Christian practice from the beginning. When they seemed to disagree on everything else, the various factions could agree on this.

"Bear one another's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ." (Galatians 6:2)

In Biblical times people had a different understanding of poverty than we have today. Survival was hard. It was assumed that everyone understood hardship and deprivation and had an intimate acquaintance with hunger. Before the age of the self-made man in the mid-1800s, social status was viewed as essentially unchangeable. If you were born a peasant it was unfortunate but not a moral failing. In the mid-1800s, however, society was being transformed. In the UK the aristocracy was beginning to lose its power. In the still largely undeveloped United States, conditions were ideal for poor boys to make good. As P.T. Barnum put it, “In a new country, where we have more land than people, it is not at all difficult for persons in good health to make money.”

Irvin G. Wyllie, in The Self Made Man dates the golden era of the self-made man from 1835. If you wanted to go from rags to riches, this was the year to be born. (It was the year of Andrew Carnegie’s birth.) This generation came up with a new narrative. Horatio Alger wrote about boys who were born to poverty and who improved their lots in life through hard work and moral correctness. It seemed that anyone who was willing to work could become rich, men were in charge of their own destinies and the role of fate in our fortunes began to recede.

In what author Michael B. Katz author of The Undeserving Poor calls the “irony of optimism,”it followed that if a man made his own way, the poor must be to blame for their economic failings.

“The age of the self-made man was also the age of the broken man,” wrote Scott A. Sandage in Born Losers, “This ‘American sense’ looked upon failure as a ‘moral sieve’ that trapped the loafer and passed the true man through. Such ideologies fixed blame squarely on individual faults, not extenuating circumstances.”

The belief that people are entirely in control of their own destinies became so strong that Americans are now blind to the fact that there is a famine in the tale of the Prodigal Son and we tend to interpret it as a cautionary tale about being irresponsible and foolish with money.

In spite of our American industriousness, poverty has persisted. As we increasingly viewed it as a problem of persons (as Katz puts it), we looked for ways to separate the deserving from the undeserving poor in our policies. The identity of the undeserving has shifted over time. In the early days of our nation it was usually an able-bodied man, viewed as drunk and lazy, who was targeted out as undeserving. Increasingly, in our day, it is the unmarried mother.  Katz observes:

Empirical evidence almost always challenges the assumptions underlying the classifications of poor people. Even in the late nineteenth century, countervailing data, not to mention decades of administrative frustration, showed their inadequacy… Still, as even a casual reading of the popular press, occasional attention to political rhetoric, or informal conversations about poverty reveal, empirical evidence has remarkably little effect on what people think. Part of the reason is that conventional classifications of poor people serve such useful purposes. They offer a familiar and easy target for displacing rage, frustration, and fear. They demonstrate the link between virtue and success that legitimates capitalist political economy. And by dividing poor people, they prevent their coalescing into a unified political force. Stigmatized conditions and punitive treatment, moreover, provide powerful incentives to work, whatever the wages and conditions.

This has led to an ironic situation in which we now define those who are more well-off as the deserving poor and those who are the poorest, by virtue of being poor, as the least deserving. The results of a recent study on government spending on social programs to alleviate poverty found that there has been a marked shift away from supporting those earning the least money, as little as 50 percent of the federal poverty line, to those with incomes as much as 200 percent above the poverty line.

We do not suffer with the extremely poor, we blame them. In Mulvaney’s view of compassion, it is we who suffer because the poor need our help.

With finite resources, compassionate people can disagree on how best to help the poor, who needs a helping hand and who does not. The question will always exist. In the past, however, there were certain things we could pretty much all agree upon. We have not had, as Katz wrote, “much sympathy for poor persons throughout American history other than children, widows, and a few others whose lack of responsibility for their condition could not be denied. These were the deserving poor.”

Today it seems even those boundaries have been transcended. People in political power are now arguing that poor children should not be given free lunch because they need to learn responsibility, and that giving meals to elderly widows does nothing to improve the GDP.

So you will forgive me if I look beyond politics and wonder if America is losing its soul.

Work, Debt and Identity

There is an interview today on The Atlantic with Allison J. Pugh, author of The Tumbleweed Society.  Pugh has written about the toll job insecurity takes on a person’s relationships and sense of identity.

“The work ethic, and all the different ways in which people define that, is a really powerful way in which people define themselves as honorable in our society,” Pugh said. “What that does is it makes involuntary job loss all the more painful. Because it’s not just about interruptions to your income.. it’s also chipping away at how we think of ourselves—as honorable people, as people who can stand up as full citizens in our social world and say, ‘I belong here. I’m a contributing member. I work hard.'”

One of the main themes in the novel Identity Theft, and one that has not been commented on much in reviews, is the central character’s struggle with identity as she faces the loss of her career. Maybe it does not come up much because when a character is female we’re primed to think her central conflict is related to romantic love and the main question the novel will try to solve is whether or not she will find love or a sense of her own attractiveness by the end.

Candi’s main struggle, though, is her sense that she is not valuable. That her particular skills, being a good, reliable worker, do not mean anything. This is tied more to her financial problems than body image issues. When people experience poverty they usually feel ashamed, and a natural result of this is that they tend to retreat from friendships.

As Robert Walker, professor of social policy at Oxford University, wrote in his book The Shame of Poverty:

With economic development and growing individualization, social status has increasingly come to be associated with achievement, rather than with ascribed characteristics such as age, birth right, and gender. Most recently, wealth, expenditure and consumption have emerged as the predominant measures of personal success…Psychologists demonstrate that people experiencing shame not only feel small and humiliated, they are likely to experience social isolation which is either forced up on them, a form of exile, or chosen by them so as to avoid the possibility of public shaming. They are also prone to feelings of anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, and even suicide.

…the sense of shame is likely also to be prolonged because most people in poverty will generally already be doing as much as they can to escape from poverty…People in poverty lack the resources necessary to reciprocate, to support wives and husbands, to bring up children or even, adopting the language of stigma, to be fully human. Moreover, should they fail to appreciate the degree of their inadequacy and the depth of their degradation, society takes it upon itself to shame them into changing their ways or, with similar intent, to stigmatize them, thereby reinforcing the social divisions of ‘us’ and ‘them’ and often actively discriminating against them, ‘the poor.’

…Respondents in all seven national settings sought to avoid the possibilities of shaming by stopping going out with friends or inviting people home to eat…. The change was usually justified as a measure to reduce cost, but it also meant that they were less likely to be placed in a position in which they would subsequently need to reciprocate in ways that they could not afford…Avoiding social life meant avoiding shame, but also resulted in a decline in the number of people that would be available to assist in the event of a crisis, thereby adding to the vulnerability of life in poverty.

One of the fascinating things in the interview with Pugh is that she found that when people lose a job through downsizing or layoffs, they tend to blame themselves. Apparently we are so invested in the mythos that we live in a world where hard work and merit are rewarded, we would rather blame ourselves than give up on that notion.

“But it’s like they’ve given up on this other huge thing,” Pugh said, “which is: Do employers owe any kind of loyalty to their employees? That’s not a conversation that we have anymore.”

In Identity Theft, it is only at the end, when Candi has been laid low by the events of the story, that she thinks to pose this very question. (Albeit in different words.)

Is society entirely impersonal? Do we owe nothing to one another?

It is the constantly re-enforced shame that comes in the form of calls from creditors and her social isolation that makes Candi vulnerable to Ethan’s game. Because her social world has contracted to posts on Facebook, the only relationship she is going to find is one that comes right to her. And the one that happens to fall in her lap is so magical it has the power to soothe all of her feelings of being useless and not a full member of society. Being courted by a rock star is the only thing, really, with the power to overcome all of her vulnerability and insecurity. So it becomes central to her sense of self.

I recommend The Atlantic article. I think it is important for the narrative about insecure employment, debt and wage stagnation to be broadened to include all of its impacts on relationships, culture and society.

What CNN Leaves Out

CNN ran a front page story today about baggage handlers caught stealing from airline checked bags.

A CNN analysis of passenger property loss claims filed with the TSA from 2010 to 2014 shows 30,621 claims of missing valuables, mostly packed in checked luggage. The rest occurred at security checkpoints. Total property loss claimed: $2.5 million. John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York topped the list of airports with the most claims of thefts from luggage, followed by Los Angeles International, Orlando International and Miami International, according to the data.

As I read the story, there was something that I wondered. I couldn’t find it anywhere in the reporting (even though it is credited to three journalists). So I looked this up myself:

Baggage handlers are paid an average of $11.92 an hour, a little more than $23,000 a year. The U.S. federal poverty line for a family of four is $24,250. A person in this income bracket qualifies for food stamps.

Maybe it’s a bad idea to put people who are paid below the poverty line in charge of making sure passengers valuables get on the plane safely.

This should at least be part of the discussion.

Self-Publishing and “Economically Privileged Authors”

I read an article on a blog called “it’s all one thing” (lowercase title in the original) with the title “I Challenge You To Stop Reading Economically Privileged Authors for One Year.”

I agree wholeheartedly with the basic premise of the article, that it is important to read outside of the echo chamber of one’s own social category and that upper middle class readers need to experience the voices of working class writers. When thinking about diversity it is important to include social class. We, far too often, ignore it completely.

But the expression “economically privileged authors” tripped me up a bit. Writing is hardly a lucrative profession.

Yes, I am lucky. I have resources that I would not have had I been born into poverty. I was raised in a home with “middle class values” and the confidence (and the pressure) that comes with that. “Take risks! Follow your dream! Your career should be a source of personal fulfillment!”  I am college-educated and have the vocabulary and accent of a professional. I can go into fairly upscale establishments and not look out of place. People give me the benefit of the doubt that I have credit cards to buy things and I am not there to rob the store. Thanks to my background I can hide my poverty, and as much as possible I do, because people make a lot of assumptions about those with no money. They are lazy, untrustworthy, incapable, unprofessional and selfish. I am none of those things, but as a working artist I am frequently poor. (My irregular income makes me at times very poor and at times almost among the middle class economically. So far, it has never made me rich.)

Writing the book “Broke is Beautiful” was therapeutic for me because it gave me the courage to admit this publicly, but one thing I hadn’t expected was the common criticism I would receive that I was a poverty poseur.  Coming from a background of privilege and being (currently) economically privileged are two different things. It’s not always as easy to know who the “poor” are as you think.

Will Shetterly,  the author of the “it’s all one thing” blog, was not talking about poverty though. He was talking about social class.

Reading stories from the point of view of working class characters, by writers from working class backgrounds, can help to solve one of the problems in our conversation about poverty and social class– the problem of “othering” and speaking about members of different social classes in distant abstractions.

There are two main ways that people talk about “the poor” one associated with the political right and the other with the political left. The first is to talk about poverty as though it were solely a matter of morality and personal choice. “Anyone can pull himself up by his bootstraps if he has enough gumption. Therefore if you are poor it is because you are not working hard enough.” If you have experienced poverty for any length of time you know how much harder it is to accomplish things than when you are rich. You understand how one problem can set you back on multiple fronts. You know about the exhaustion of it and the personal strain. (People who are relatively comfortable often wonder why poor people go to payday lenders instead of borrowing money from friends or relatives. This assumes, first of all, that the friends and relatives have money to lend. It also entirely discounts the importance of social capital in a community with scant financial resources. A person who is already relying on friends and relatives– maybe a neighbor is watching her kids after school because she can’t afford day care or a friend is giving her rides to work– tries to preserve those relationships by not overly taxing them. It seems to the well-off person to be short-sighted, but in full context, it is actually a long-term view. Money problems may come and go, but your sister is going to be your sister for life, and she has a good memory.) The bootstrap theory is overly simplistic.

On the other hand, I sometimes cringe when I read defenses of the poor written by sympathetic college-educated, middle class people, who are aware of privilege but who have no personal experience of poverty. It is far too easy for empathy for the difficulties of the poor to morph into something like fatalism and pity. “There are all kinds of systemic obstacles. A black inner city kid can’t be expected to….” Birth is not destiny. A person from a marginalized group, with no money, has a much harder time of it. But it is as big a mistake to speak of those obstacles as defining, and to assume the person has no chance for positive change as it is to write the obstacles off as minor inconveniences.

Therefore we need more narratives written by and about competent, strong people who can paint vivid portraits of the drama of these obstacles.

“This is one of the rarely spoken truths of publishing: Most writers come from backgrounds of economic privilege,” Shetterly wrote.

The discussion about publishing and privilege tends to focus on traditional publishers. Self-publishing is supposed to be the great democratic force in publishing, allowing writers from groups that have been traditionally under-represented by the big houses to have their voices heard.

I wonder, though, if independent publishing can live up to this promise or if it will actually exacerbate the problem. I thought about this the other day when I was looking at some of the marketing options on Createspace. (I used Createspace for my current novel.)

These days publishing a book can be as easy as uploading a pdf  or Word file. Publishing is no longer the hard part. What is a challenge is bringing your book to the attention of readers and getting it to stand out among the glut of independently produced books. In other words, it is much easier to get a book into print than it is to get anyone to read it.

Reviewers have a lot on their plates and they are not interested in reading garbage. The few major reviewers who consider independent books look for ways to separate the wheat from the chaff. Kirkus, I discovered via Createspace, will review your book for a fee of $425, or in my terms, two car payments.

The idea behind this, if there is one besides a desire to make some money from the self-publishing boom, is that if someone is serious enough to invest in marketing the book, they were probably serious in its production as well.

I read quite a few blog posts written by authors trying to decide if the fee was worth it. It is probably “worth it” in that it grants a certain respectability to an independent title, especially if the review is positive. If you were to buy advertising in a publication with such status you would expect to pay this or more. It gives the indie writer a foot in the door. But if you do not have the economic means, the question is moot. There is no way a person living in poverty can come up with that much money– no matter what the benefits.

Of course a writer can, with a lot of effort, find a few bloggers he can personally persuade to champion his book. Book bloggers are absolutely inundated, and many try to reduce their load by limiting their selections to traditionally published books or those that are part of a blog tour.  Virtual blog tours are a great way to guarantee a few reviews without having to do the legwork yourself– but they are not cheap either. A typical price for a blog tour with a half dozen stops is $75-$100. A highly motivated author can substitute labor for money and can achieve similar results. It is just much, much harder.

Traditional publishers may favor books by authors from similar backgrounds to their own, but when they do publish a book they put in the money to make sure it is professionally edited, designed and marketed. In self-publishing all of those costs come out of the writer’s pocket.

The great democratic future of publishing runs the risk of becoming a playground for those who have some money to spare.

The Residuum

Slumming by Seth KovanSo I was reading a book called Slumming: Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London by Seth Koven and I came across a passage that brought to mind a number of stories I’ve been reading lately.

“With the death in October 1865 of Lord Palmerston, the great Whig Prime Minister and inveterate opponent of parliamentary reform, the enfranchisement of a substantial number of laboring men seemed inevitable. Debates over the nature of franchise reform in 1866 and 1867 revolved around establishing the boundaries between one group of men deemed worthy of inclusion in the political nation— the respectable, independent working man living in a stable residence as head of household— and another deemed unworthy of the privileges of citizenship— the wayward ‘rough’ and dependent pauper who flitted from one cheap lodging to another. By 1867, the great Liberal reformer John Bright had declared the existence of a class he called ‘the residuum,’ whose exclusion from the rest of the male working class was essential for the nation’s well being.”

I was reminded of a study by Robert A. Moffitt I have cited here twice. Moffitt discovered a distinct trend of welfare benefits going to those who are regarded as “deserving” of support.  The government and voters prefer that aid go to those who work, who are married and who have kids.  Instead of saying every American kid should be able to afford an education, the President now says “every middle class kid” should be able to afford an education. A provision in the House GOP version of this year’s agricultural bill, meanwhile, would restrict a summer program intended to feed poor children to the rural and not the urban poor.  There even appears to be growing negative sentiment towards charity with the recipients of aid being described as freeloaders. I have written about this before as well.

In Victorian times, class anxieties were often linked to a sense that the undeserving poor were sexually immoral. The poor, after all, are far more likely to chose to work as prostitutes than the rich. There is a dimension of sexual morality in our condemnation of the undeserving poor as well.  The breakdown of the traditional family among the lower classes is to blame. Single mothers are penalized by our social programs in the name of encouraging marriage.  Single mothers are part of the residuum.

In Victorian England, the quest to separate the moral and deserving laborers from the immoral and undeserving poor was sparked by fears about the breakdown of the social order as the aristocracy began to decline and the middle class started to grow. Without the old hierarchies, how could they avoid descending into utter chaos?

I began to wonder if our increasing focus on separating the deserving from the undeserving might be a function of our own changing class system.  After all, Britain has returned to Victorian levels of inequality and the U.S. has higher inequality than England (and Bangladesh, and Ethiopia).

As we see middle class incomes stagnate, and the lines between the middle class and poor start to blur, do we seek to make moral distinctions between groups of the poor as a way to reassure ourselves that we will never be on the bottom rung ourselves?

provision in the House GOP’s version of this year’s agriculture bill: they want to restrict a summer program intended to feed poor children who rely on school lunches during the rest of the year to rural children only.  – See more at: http://www.peacock-panache.com/2014/05/welfare-for-our-constituents-is-okay.html#sthash.mPOBbgMv.dpuf
a remarkable provision in the House GOP’s version of this year’s agriculture bill: they want to restrict a summer program intended to feed poor children who rely on school lunches during the rest of the year to rural children only.  – See more at: http://www.peacock-panache.com/2014/05/welfare-for-our-constituents-is-okay.html#sthash.mPOBbgMv.dpuf
a remarkable provision in the House GOP’s version of this year’s agriculture bill: they want to restrict a summer program intended to feed poor children who rely on school lunches during the rest of the year to rural children only.  – See more at: http://www.peacock-panache.com/2014/05/welfare-for-our-constituents-is-okay.html#sthash.mPOBbgMv.dpuf




Those Pesky Asides

I was watching an older episode of Inside Man with Morgan Spurlock. He was comparing the education systems in Finland and the United States. The Finns have consistently better educational outcomes than we do, and he wanted to compare and contrast. After spending some time in Findland, Spurlock returned to the U.S. and explained that the Finnish system couldn’t translate to our country because our population is so diverse. He mentioned, as if in passing, that the U.S. has the second highest child poverty rate in the developed world.

We have the second highest child poverty rate in the developed world.

After mentioning this, Spurlock went on to investigate a charter school in New York where they have a particular style of instruction and…

Can we go back to that child poverty thing for a minute?

Taking this as the background and not as a major problem to tackle is a bit like comparing the architecture in two towns. First you go to a beautiful city with modern homes and admire what they’ve done. Then you to to the second town and say, “Of course, you can’t build the same kind of house here because the entire town is constructed over an enormous sinkhole. Now, let’s look at how they put in the windows to maximize the light in the entry way.”

Maybe we should talk about the giant sinkhole.