Our social safety net has a hole in it. The fibers of the net are
decaying; the hole is getting bigger. More people are falling through,
and the people with the least strength are holding the most of the
weight. Three to four million Americans are homeless according to the
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 5.5% cannot find jobs
according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, and the figure is over
twice that in the 20-24 year old age group, according to the Department
of Education. A very slim minority of these people are sucking off the
system, but the vast majority just had a bad break.
Such is the story of Peter and Megan, as told by author Jonathan Kozol
in his Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Book Award winner Rachel and Her
Children: Homeless Families in America. Peter was a carpenter and she
was a homemaker who raised their five children. They lived in a neat,
working class apartment building in New York City. Peter did
construction for public housing projects, and had a vast array of
technical skills and tools: I did carpentry. I painted. I could do
wallpapering. I earned a living. We spent Sundays walking with our
children on the beach. It may sound like this was a happy family,
living the American Dream. Perhaps they were — they were self
sufficient for all of the 12 years that they had been married, they had
a steady income, a close and loving family, a home, and a chance for
their children to do even better than they had done. Then the fire
struck. They came racing home after hearing the news, only to find that
everything had been destroyed. The children lost their pet dog and cat,
Megan lost her grandmothers china, but Peter perhaps lost the most: his
tools. Since the fire, he has not had a job, because a carpenter without
tools might as well not have eyes. He explained that for every job he
had, he would add a new tool to his collection. But they all went up in
the blaze. When Kozol first met them, they were living in a welfare
hotel in New York, where they had been living for two years. They cant
get 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 one
room motel.) In their two room apartment, the entire place is falling
apart, with crumbling walls, no working toilets, and a stench Kozol
describes as overpowering.

A year later, Kozol meets Peter and Megan again. This time theyre
living on the street, and their children have been taken away, all to
different foster homes, because, Peter says White children are in
demand by the adoption agencies. The social safety net designed to help
people who are down on their luck: where is it for Peter and Megan, not
to mention their children? And without a safety net, how can we expect
people to fulfill this American Dream? Evidently, we cant. Its as
good as dead.

Peter and Megan are real people. This is a real story. For as long as
anybody can remember, weve been pounded by success stories of the
American Dream. But for every Colin Powell, Lee Iacocca, Bob Dole, or
Arnold Schwartzenegger, there are dozens, if not hundreds of Peters and
Megans. And as long as there are people who want jobs and cant get
them, as long as children live on the streets because of no fault of
their own, as long as the value of a dollar for the worker keeps
declining, we cant really say that the American Dream is a reality.

The American Dream doesnt have a set definition. It used to mean
having a husband who worked and provided for his family, a wife who
raised the children, and for every generation, a chance to do better
than your parents and to have your children do even better than you. But
today a new definition of the dream is in order. It basically comes down
today to the knowledge that if you, as President Clinton says, work
hard 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 a
society we need to make certain that some things are brought back to the
table if we want to restore the dream, specifically:
Job stability – Without a steady source of income, its impossible to
have a budget on which to base how you allot your money, and obviously a
steady cash flow is the only way to purchase the necessities.

A superior pubic education system – In order to get ahead, you have to
have an education. In order for people to allow their children to do
better than they did, their children have to have more education. Some
programs like a voucher system that would jeopardize the public
education system are threats to the American way of life because they
strip public schools of their income base and direct it to private and
parochial education, which should only be subsidized by parents, the
private sector, and the countrys religious institutions that we give a
tax-exempt status to for this reason among others. Some would say that
the public education system has failed, that the buildings resemble
prisons more than schools, that there is incessant violence, and a whole
host of other complaints, but they can all be fixed as soon as we start
taking care of the underclass that we created. It has become a
self-perpetuation situation and a self-fulfilling prophecy. Certainly
nobody expects there to be an American Dream without a firm educational
basis, and certainly nobody believes that our country would have been
better off if we has never had publicly subsidized education.

Dollar power for the worker – Inflation must be low and the dollar
must remain strong in a world market. Almost all workers are now also in
competition with every other worker in the world. Purchasing power must
be kept high for the working class, and the minimum wage must be enough
on which to support a family. According to Harvard economics professor
Larry Katz, the budget would be balanced today if real wages had real
increased at the same rate over the last two decades as they had over
the two and a half before that, all other factors remaining the same. In
addition, the dollar cannot remain strong without balanced international
trade and an internal stimulation of the economy. Tariffs are a
historically useful tool for restoring trade imbalances. They add money
to the federal budget while encouraging Americans to buy domestically
made products and sending a strong message to companies that operate
sweatshops in places like Haiti, Indonesia, El Salvador, and Sri Lanka,
all places where popular brands like Nike, Reebok, Structure, Tommy
Hilfiger, Guess, and Liz Claiborne have factories. These sweatshops both
deprive their employees of basic human rights but cost Americans jobs.

A message of hope from public officials – The government must see the
American Dream as a viable possibility, or else they will plan for
failure and self-destruction.

And finally, a net to fall onto as needed. Every time someone switches
jobs, has an illness, has an unforseeable disaster, or falls between the
cracks, we cant expect him or her to start all over again. The whole
purpose behind this safety net is to allow people to tread water for a
few 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 of
government intervention. Conservatives talk about the heavy hand of
socialism like it was the Antichrist. This will not lead to government
regulation of every facet of our lives; it will merely set up some new
programs, eliminate some old ones, and restructure the existing ones to
patch the hole so that the net can catch people and help them rebound.
* * *
The Homeless Voices Project is a project sponsored by the National
Coalition for the Homeless that gets the stories of the homeless to show
the more fortunate what theyre going through. The best way to express
how the dream is failing is by telling the stories of those that it has
failed for in their own words, the words of the men and women who feel
the pain of desertion by the country that promised to help make them
strong. (The actual voices of these people can be heard on the Internet
at http://nch.ari.net/vocpage1.html using Netscape, MS-Explorer, or NCSA
Mosaic with the appropriate helper applications.) Every one of these
people has been failed by one of the tenets of the dream. Mike, like
Peter, is a construction worker.


“I’m a construction worker, unemployed at the moment, and living at a
shelter. 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 are
no….no strong unions or regulations for putting up these government
buildings and as a result, we just make enough to basically feed
ourselves. And…by then, the job is over. And then we have to look for
another one which may be a year from now, and it’s just not…possible
for 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 no
permanent jobs available. The best you can do is a temporary one. So, we
go from one temporary situation to another, and never manage to get
enough money together… to… to do anything…for ourselves in a
permanent 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, is
mostly with the church I belong to. I go out to their activities. We
have picnics… retreats…evening activities– tutoring, things like
that. And that’s what I do in the evenings. It’s good to get away
from…from the hopelessness that most people like myself have to deal
with twenty-four hours a day.

“So, hopefully it won’t always be like this, but I don’t see anything
happening 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 the
world when he cant even afford a place to live. The conventional wisdom
is to sacrifice, but where is that sacrifice to come from? With
corporate America restructuring (read: laying off and firing), it has
become impossible for people like Mike to enjoy the first part of the
dream: job stability. And when he has a job, his dollar is worth the
least its been worth for the working class since the Eisenhower
administration.

Angela had a job, paid her taxes, and played by the rules. But a string
of 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 you
to know that homelessness can… happento anyone. It can happen to
you, it happened to me. I had three years of college. I worked two jobs
for four years, and things happen… and that is one of the reasons why
I am homeless. Uh.., you don’t necessarily have to be mentally
incompetent, you don’t necessarily have to be handicapped. Things can
happen, whether you have a silver spoon in your mouth, or you are just
below the poverty line. You can become homeless.”
Paul Deitrich is an African-American man who saw his minimum wage job
go from one on which he could take care of himself to one where he could
barely scrape by and have no real savings to speak of. Then that job
bottomed out on him, he got his two weeks notice, and he was on the
street within a month. Both the lack of job stability and the lack of
dollar power contributed to his fall. And there is no net to help him
get back up — how can you apply for a job when you dont have a phone
number, 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 bind
that people are in, who have real small incomes, or no incomes at all is
unbelievable. I remember in the last years of Dr. King’s life, he moved
away from social commodation (sic) issues and concentrated more on
economic issues in the South–in terms of supporting the organization of
hospitals and garbage workers to raise the minimum wage to help remove
this bind. The bind got worse, because nowadays with computerization and
automation, the whole strata of lower level jobs has been completely
eliminated. And Dr. King, in the last years of his life, was not only
interested in that, he was organizing at that time a poor peoples’
encampment to dramatize the terrible bind the lower levels of our
societies are in. And in fact, he had begun to formulate a slogan, which
might describe whats happening to hundreds of thousands of people here
in the United States. And that slogan was
written: “Unbridled Capitalism is Economic Terrorism”… And we have to
live with that. And it drives many of us to despair–and behind that
despair, we turn to those things that numb our despair…
“Similar to the enclosure system at the end of feudalism, when the big
land owners realized they could make far more money by driving the serfs
off the land and growing sheep for the factories. And the cities in
Northern Europe filled up with many, many hundreds of thousands of
people who had a rural culture, and didn’t know how to deal with the
urban culture at all. And the despair got so great. That is when in the
history 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 youre
homeless, where do you clean yourself? The good God-fearing women in the
churches provide us with food, which is a great blessing. When you look
for a job, where do you tell them to call you back? When you make phone
calls at a public phone, you might lose at least one out of four
quarters……Where do you get a drink in this kind of weather?”
Society has truly abandoned the people who can be heard the least. But
if we ignore the hole in the net any longer, the middle class will erode
into poverty one family at a time, and then, and only then, America will
not be able to recover from what it will have become.