Employment may not be a solution to the homeless crisis in America

The New York Times writer, Matthew Desmond, writes a social commentary on the nature of the homeless crisis in American Society today. His focus is on the nature of how American’s perceive employment as a solution toward decreasing homelessness. An excerpt follows from his article. To read the full commentary: Americans Want to Believe Jobs Are the Solution to Poverty. They’re not. 

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These days, we’re told that the American economy is strong. Unemployment is down, the Dow Jones industrial average is north of 25,000 and millions of jobs are going unfilled. But for people like Vanessa, the question is not, Can I land a job? (The answer is almost certainly, Yes, you can.) Instead the question is, What kinds of jobs are available to people without much education? By and large, the answer is: jobs that do not pay enough to live on.

During my tenure of experiencing homelessness (between 1997 and 2004) the challenge was finding sustainable and stable housing. While there were occasions where housing was available, for the most part, I spent living in shelters, vehicles, and finally a transitional housing program.

At that time (compared to today) housing was affordable. Yet, without any higher education, the only jobs available were those in fast food industries, general labor through temp agencies, and these paid the standard state minimum wage. While grateful for work (and always pride myself on strong work ethics), the ability to afford housing and all other basic necessities became more of a chore.

Add on to the reality that people engaged in low paying jobs are not able to save money. Not because they may lack discipline. Inability to save money was, for me at least, considered a mere luxury I was not able to afford. One merely survived on their daily wage. And, if one is incapable of saving money, they may not have the ability to even pay for a college education (even if they qualified for financial aid).

In recent decades, the nation’s tremendous economic growth has not led to broad social uplift. Economists call it the “productivity-pay gap” — the fact that over the last 40 years, the economy has expanded and corporate profits have risen, but real wages have remained flat for workers without a college education. Since 1973, American productivity has increased by 77 percent, while hourly pay has grown by only 12 percent. If the federal minimum wage tracked productivity, it would be more than $20 an hour, not today’s poverty wage of $7.25.

I was listening to the Mike Medved show (Friday, September 14, 2018) where Medved was discussing the social perception of gender discrimination regarding pay gaps. Meaning, there is the debate on wages men make verses wages women make. He reported on how an Australian politician reflected the discrepancy in pay gap between those who work in Child care and those who work as metal workers.

What we tend to forget is the disparity between those who have higher education levels and are paid more. Furthermore, the disparity is also based on the nature of work. For me, with an associates level of degree, I am paid far less than those who obtain a vocational certificate and work as a programmer or coder. Where I make less than 50k per year in the social human services field, a person who receives a certificate in coding may work for company like Amazon making 80 – 100k per year. Even if I were to obtain a bachelor’s degree, I still make less than what is required to afford a home in Seattle, let alone afford to even reside in its city limits.

This housing crisis is not going away. And, I am not alone in voicing concern over the nature and struggle for affordable housing.

The other problem, I see, is that you have individuals who are skilled employees. Having established stable and long term employment. Suddenly, they are dislocated because of cut backs, downsizing, and dwindling demand for particular products. When the Great Recession (December 2007 to June 2009) occurred, many people in the manufacturing and construction industry were dislocated.

Some were able to take advantage of programs designed in retraining individuals for different fields of employment. However, while I was seeking employment outside of being laid off from my employment with International Paper, the pay being offered was not comparable to what I was making. Being asked to take a job that barely paid above minimum wage when you were making approximately $20.00 per hour felt more like a slap in the face.

American workers are being shut out of the profits they are helping to generate. The decline of unions is a big reason. During the 20th century, inequality in America decreased when unionization increased, but economic transformations and political attacks have crippled organized labor, emboldening corporate interests and disempowering the rank and file. This imbalanced economy explains why America’s poverty rate has remained consistent over the past several decades, even as per capita welfare spending has increased. It’s not that safety-net programs don’t help; on the contrary, they lift millions of families above the poverty line each year. But one of the most effective antipoverty solutions is a decent-paying job, and those have become scarce for people like Vanessa. Today, 41.7 million laborers — nearly a third of the American work force — earn less than $12 an hour, and almost none of their employers offer health insurance.

This is the problem here. Underpaid employee’s and lack of availability of health insurance is commonplace in our workforce. Couple this with many positions, over the years, have been moved over to foreign companies as there is a lower pay rate.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics defines a “working poor” person as someone below the poverty line who spent at least half the year either working or looking for employment. In 2016, there were roughly 7.6 million Americans who fell into this category. Most working poor people are over 35, while fewer than five in 100 are between the ages of 16 and 19. In other words, the working poor are not primarily teenagers bagging groceries or scooping ice cream in paper hats. They are adults — and often parents — wiping down hotel showers and toilets, taking food orders and bussing tables, eviscerating chickens at meat-processing plants, minding children at 24-hour day care centers, picking berries, emptying trash cans, stacking grocery shelves at midnight, driving taxis and Ubers, answering customer-service hotlines, smoothing hot asphalt on freeways, teaching community-college students as adjunct professors and, yes, bagging groceries and scooping ice cream in paper hats.

Yes, while I agree that there are entry level employment opportunities for high school age individuals. Many of these entry level jobs are now occupied by older individuals who lack a higher level of education. Many work multiple jobs as well.

America prides itself on being the country of economic mobility, a place where your station in life is limited only by your ambition and grit. But changes in the labor market have shrunk the already slim odds of launching yourself from the mailroom to the boardroom. For one, the job market has bifurcated, increasing the distance between good and bad jobs. Working harder and longer will not translate into a promotion if employers pull up the ladders and offer supervisory positions exclusively to people with college degrees. Because large companies now farm out many positions to independent contractors, those who buff the floors at Microsoft or wash the sheets at the Sheraton typically are not employed by Microsoft or Sheraton, thwarting any hope of advancing within the company. Plus, working harder and longer often isn’t even an option for those at the mercy of an unpredictable schedule. Nearly 40 percent of full-time hourly workers know their work schedules just a week or less in advance. And if you give it your all in a job you can land with a high-school diploma (or less), that job might not exist for very long: Half of all new positions are eliminated within the first year. According to the labor sociologist Arne Kalleberg, permanent terminations have become “a basic component of employers’ restructuring strategies.”

 

The reality is, after reading this social commentary on housing, homelessness, poverty, and the state of American Society, one can only conclude that merely getting a Job is not what will lift that person out of the gutters, out of the shelters, and out of their tents or cars.

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