Why Homelessness Won’t Be Solved by Itself

The San Francisco Chronicle ran an admirable series on homelessness—on the front page. Like everywhere else, the city has spent many millions to help solve the problem, and it has only gotten worse. That’s because homelessness is not a city problem. It’s not even a national problem. At base, it’s a global problem, closely related to the concentration of the nation’s and the world’s wealth in the hands of a few people who have absolutely no use for it.

Homelessness is not one single problem. Locally, the two most significant factors are unemployment and substance abuse. The former is no doubt the far bigger factor, in spite of what some people think. To those people, mostly white conservatives who believe because they were always able to find work, anyone unemployed is simply not trying hard enough. Oddly enough, the same people also believe that all homeless are addicts. In neither case do they think that economic conditions might have something to do with it.

Homelessness is not caused by the homeless. It is caused by the economy.

I will leave addiction for another time. The biggest element of homelessness is unemployment, and many of the personal tales are heartbreaking. Millions of people with decades of dependable skilled work were tossed aside when factories closed, their jobs shipped off to poor countries where the bosses pay a fraction of US wages, and workers are too desperate to demand more.

The newly jobless family is unable to find equivalent work, and falls behind on the mortgage and bills. Eventually they settle for beginning-level wages, which don’t pay the bills. They downsize, sometimes unable to sell their house in a down market, which is then seized by the bank. Sometimes they can’t find work because they are “too old”, which can be anything from 40 on up. Sometimes everything fails, and they have no choice but to live in their car, or a tent.

However, the loss of work because of modernization is a greater factor than outsourcing jobs to the Third World, although they are related. As I have said here and here, more and more of the work we depended on is being done by robots and computers. Some of this modernization calls for employees with new skills, but many more jobs simply vaporize, their workers pushed out to fend for themselves. Jobs in management aren’t shielded from this trend, either, if for no other reason than the analytical work by management, as well as software coding, can be done at 25% of the cost by workers in India and elsewhere.

Not all is lost, however. Effort in at least four areas can create higher levels of employment. These are: (1) a shorter work week; (2) better laws that provide universal citizen needs at greater efficiency; (3) laws that keep jobs and money in the country; (4) and changes that attenuate the greed of the very rich and the corporate bosses.

As I have said before, my half-humorous suggestion for determining the work week was to divide the grand total of hours of work available by the grand total number of workers. In principle it’s actually a good idea. It would give us a work week of 20 hours or so, which would give us some of the benefits that modernization should provide.

Getting to a 20-hour week is not simple, because workers can neither suddenly be paid half as much nor can they be paid the same for half the work. But we did it to arrive at the 40-hour week from 60 hours, so it is quite possible.

The federal government can do numerous things to make living under the new situation comfortable. Conservatives who believe that a sort of anarchy with few laws and minimal government is the best way are simply wrong. That would give us more crime and less efficiency.

We have laws because not everyone can be trusted to behave for the common benefit, obviously. Besides individual criminals, corporations and the very rich dependably behave in ways that reduce everyone else’s wealth and wellbeing while increasing their own. This has given us the current plutocracy, which, if we are to restore our democracy, must be overthrown one way or another. But that will not happen as long as the very rich and their congressional pets control the government. The once-reasonable Republican party has gone berserk, and is no help. It will take great Democratic strength to rescue the country from itself.

The laws that have taken away from the common good must simply be ended. If a practice cannot be shown to be socially worthwhile, it should be outlawed. It’s not hard to think of examples. Flash trading and hedge funds have no social utility at all; they do not benefit the country in any way. Giant banks must return to boring old banking, and shed their investment services. This is something the Great Depression taught us, but we forgot. Corporations must not be able to avoid their fair share of taxes by setting up a shell headquarters in some low-tax country. All the tax dodges set up by the very wealthy and their congressional pets must be ended. There is no reason the very rich should own such a huge part of the national wealth, because the only place it can come from is the rest of us.

Rather than clutching their pearls and watching corporate bosses rake in multi-millions for sending jobs to poor countries, Congress should enact any number of laws that discourage them from shipping jobs out and closing the mill. Simply requiring all foods to be pure and without known chemicals and impurities, and labeled GMO if they are, would not only improve the quality of our food, but would eliminate carelessly produced foods from overseas. Modernizing factories could be encouraged with financial incentives. Many small steps would improve the employment picture.

Corporations have taken to setting up an office in a low tax country and calling that the corporate headquarters to avoid paying taxes. There are many ways that could be curbed, including designating such companies foreign companies, subject to taxes and duties greater than those for domestic companies. The global economy is complex, but our laws should not allow the US to suffer for the benefit of corporate officers.

In all cases of universal citizen need, the federal government must manage that need, because profit-making interests will always cost significantly more. Every such step we take improves the wellbeing and wealth of the country. National health care is the most obvious instance. National health care insurance would provide the average equivalent of a seven percent raise. The simplest example of benefit here is the avoidance of unnecessary death from untreated disease. An adult who dies unnecessarily costs the country a lot, which falls on the deficit side of the national accounting. There are many other possibilities for national services besides health care that would improve the financial security of all citizens.

These things are so obviously beneficial for the country it is ridiculous to believe we’d be better off without them, as Republicans claim. The federal government is efficient, in spite of what Ronald Reagan claimed, and requires fewer people to do the same work, without the severely bloated wages of corporate bosses.

Right now the government seems to have no understanding of what causes homelessness, nor have more than a handful of people suggested what we can do about it. I believe that the ways I have suggested are well worth discussion and development. I believe they would cure or improve several serious problems. Unfortunately, one political party, the one that caused most of the problems in the first place, would rather defend the plutocracy.

Dying For Lack of Opportunity

The death rate for white males in their middle years has skyrocketed because of suicide and drug overdose. These are people who have been denied the American dream. Their jobs disappeared, along with their house, their medical care, and their retirement. Their very lives.

People who have faced such depressing conditions become depressed, naturally. The longer it goes on, the more likely they will become dependent on alcohol or the other dangerous drugs that are so readily available everywhere. The longer they are depressed, the more likely it is they will kill themselves.

When these conditions affect the black population, self-righteous whites put on their church pins and tell them to man up. Get a job. They are not saying those things now, because the ones affected are white. There are no jobs of any kind in lots of places, other than a few part-time minimum wage gigs. Nothing you can live on.

Where did the jobs go? Many were shipped overseas by corporate bosses, where desperate people are forced to work under conditions that would be illegal here, and for pennies on the dollar.

But the other condition, which nobody is talking about, is the absorption of jobs by new robots and computers that aren’t paid a wage. We can’t even see this huge dilemma, because its onset has been insidious over decades, and it’s ubiquitous.

What began as a novelty is now the norm. Take the job of inventory of stock. Today’s young adults were not around to know that there were businesses whose sole purpose was to take inventory for companies that hired them. They came to work after a store was closed for the day, and a large crew counted everything in the store and wrote it down on paper. Later, the managers tallied these counts and presented their report to the store.

All those jobs are gone. Inventory today is continuous and invisible. Each new item is scanned into the computer, and each sold item is automatically deducted from the inventory count. If an item becomes depleted, the computer tells when to order more, or does it automatically. There’s no such thing as an independent inventory, and computers perform dozens of other business services that used to require employees.

Likewise, robots have taken over large parts of manufacturing in every realm. Even things like certain types of surgery are on the verge of being performed by robots, which are much faster than human surgeons.

This modernization came on over a long period, and the evidence is scattered, so it’s not easily seen with casual observation. But it’s everywhere.

Perhaps skilled laborers are the most heavily affected by this modernization, but in actuality, new machines are absorbing jobs at every level from unskilled labor to CEO, and some of the displaced from every kind of work end up on the street, helpless before the new reality.

This, I believe, is one of the reasons that homelessness is not being solved. Every year there are additional people forced from their homes and their former lives into the streets, into tents.

My belief is that there are two things we could do to help solve the condition. First, shorten the official work week to 30 hours or less, which would mean more people working. This is not a radical change. There were regular reductions of the 72-hour work week before we reached 40 hours. Second, require all employers to pay a living wage for 30 hours of work. High enough earnings to supply everything necessary. Living wage does not hurt business because employees must spend what they earn to survive, which is fed directly into the local economy.

The federal government could greatly help the nation’s people by passing several wise laws, such as improved Social Security and initiation of national health care, like every other nation did long ago. Note, however, that this modernization would make the insurance industry largely redundant. It’s also unlikely to happen any time soon because conservatives have labelled it “Socialism”, which they associate with Karl Marx and the USSR, whereas the proper model is the modern nations of Europe and Asia.

Until the cause of white decline is recognized, accepted, and conditions changed, we can expect more of the same: substance abuse, overdose, and suicide. It won’t go away by itself.