A few days after the Los Angeles City Council declared that the city had a homeless crisis and proposed spending $100 million to ramp up shelters, affordable housing and support for groups battling homelessness, yet another report found that the numbers of homeless had swelled even more.
The mayor and the City Council, and just about anyone else with eyes in the city, didn’t need a report to know that homelessness is not just a problem, it’s a chronic problem for the city and not just this year, or last, but one that has bedeviled city officials and residents for the past two decades.
While providing more temporary and affordable housing, support and services for those on the streets is important, it does not tell why so many end up on L.A.’s streets in the first place, and once they are there stay there.
The start and end point answer is to understand that homelessness goes beyond not having a place to hang your hat at night. It goes beyond the standard reasons that are given such as alcoholism, drug addiction, divorce or mental illness. The brutal reality is that so many people are homeless and stay homeless because of poverty and the steadily widening wealth and income gap.
Countless reports tell the same sorry tale of two appalling realities — the poor are getting poorer and the rich are getting richer.
The devastating impact of poverty on American economic life is well known. It wastes the talents, energy, and productive potential of many in the work force. In some communities it increases crime, which overburdens the police, the courts, and prisons, and makes doing business in some areas more costly.
It strains the health care and welfare systems. It leads to a bigger tax drain on the middle class. It sharply reduces the ability of thousands of consumers to purchase goods and services, further crimping business growth and reducing government tax revenues.
There are several reasons why fighting poverty has never been a consistent theme among officials from the White House to the City Council.
First, defining who is poor is a challenge. Apart from the visibly homeless, those rummaging around on Skid Row and residents of the poorest and most recognizable urban inner-city communities, there are people who can easily be considered working, or even middle class one day but suddenly poor the next due to the loss of a job and tangible income.
This makes the poor even more diffuse, and hard to typecast. They cut across all ethnic, gender, religious and even political party lines. There are low-income persons in the South, Middle America, and the rural areas that are conservative, and vote Republican.
Another reason is that the poor do not have an advocacy group to bat for them with lawmakers compared with labor, civil rights, education, environmental or abortion rights supporters. That further increases their political invisibility.
The poor had loud champions during a brief moment in the 1960s, when a small band of anti-poverty groups and organizers got the attention of the Johnson administration. They shouted, cajoled and actively lobbied President Lyndon Johnson for a major expansion of anti-poverty programs, funding and initiatives to reduce poverty in the nation.
But the anti-poverty crusade quickly fell victim to Johnson’s Vietnam War build up and the increased shrill attacks from conservatives that painted the war on poverty as a scam to reward deadbeats and loafers.
Another reason for the routine silence about poverty is that the national economic and fiscal emphasis is on how to hack away tens of billions from spending on domestic and even the once sacred military programs. President Barack Obama and Congress endlessly wrangle over how best to bring down the deficit, reduce spending, decrease taxes, get rid of wasteful programs and they spar over how best to protect the interests of the middle class.
The biggest reason that politicians don’t dare make poverty a political issue is that the existence of so many poor people flies in the face of the embedded laissez faire notion that the poor aren’t poor because of the hyper concentration of wealth, or worse, any failing of the system; they’re poor because of their personal failings. Surveys have borne this out.
Even many among the poor blame themselves for their poverty. They blame it on bad luck, lack of education and skills, or on alcohol and drug problems. These are certainly reasons why some fall into poverty or remain chronically poor but they are at best peripheral to the real cause of rising poverty — the control by a relatively handful of the bulk of the nation’s income, resources and productive wealth.
Mayor Eric Garcetti and the L.A. City Council got it right when they declared L.A.’s homeless crisis unprecedented and growing and said they would try to do more about it.
Unfortunately, their best efforts won’t do much to stop the growing numbers in poverty. And sadly, many of them will continue to wind up on L.A.’s streets.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of “Torpedoing Hillary: The GOP Plan to Stop a Clinton White House” (Amazon ebook). He is the weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One and the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.