the real world: denver, colorado!
La Rosa at YAL blogs about the Downtown Denver Partnership Business Improvement District's cruel-to-be-kind scheme to curb handouts to the homeless (and thus ridding us of unseemly smelling and unsightly looking persons) on Denver's primo panhandling property, the 16th Street mall.
There's little I can say here she hasn't already said, though I have to note that while shopping online has solved so many of my own personal problems, encouraging people to go to the internet to address a local issue sounds truly disconnected - and really classcist - to me (sort of the obviously-you-don't-care-enough-to-vote-on-this-or-elect-anyone-who-does-so-why-don't-you-just-give-some-money-to-someone approach to community organizing).
Regardless, if the Giveabetterway folks were serious, they'd not only be leaning on the city - which has already drawn up a decade-long plan to alleviate the homeless phenomenon here - but on the state as well, and indeed, on our delegation to Congress.
Homelessness and poverty are inextricably linked. Poor people are frequently unable to pay for housing, food, child care, health care, and education. Difficult choices must be made when limited resources cover only some of these necessities. Often it is housing, which absorbs a high proportion of income, that must be dropped. Being poor means being an illness, an accident, or a paycheck away from living on the streets.
In 2003, 12.5% of the U.S. population, or 35.9 million people, lived in poverty. Both the poverty rate and the number of poor people have increased in recent years, up from 12.1% in 2002, and up 1.3 million from 2002 (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2004). 36% of persons living in poverty are children; in fact, the 2003 poverty rate of 17.6% for children under 18 years old is significantly higher than the poverty rate for any other age group. Two factors help account for increasing poverty: eroding employment opportunities for large segments of the workforce, and the declining value and availability of public assistance.
Eroding Work Opportunities
Media reports of a growing economy and low unemployment mask a number of important reasons why homelessness persists, and, in some areas of the country, is worsening. These reasons include stagnant or falling incomes and less secure jobs which offer fewer benefits. While the last few years have seen growth in real wages at all levels, these increases have not been enough to counteract a long pattern of stagnant and declining wages. Low-wage workers have been particularly hard hit by wage trends and have been left behind as the disparity between rich and poor has mushroomed. To compound the problem, the real value of the minimum wage in 2004 was 26% less than in 1979 (The Economic Policy Institute, 2005). Although incomes appear to be rising, this growth is largely due to more hours worked – which in turn can be attributed to welfare reform and the tight labor markets. Factors contributing to wage declines include a steep drop in the number and bargaining power of unionized workers; erosion in the value of the minimum wage; a decline in manufacturing jobs and the corresponding expansion of lower-paying service-sector employment; globalization; and increased nonstandard work, such as temporary and part-time employment (Mishel, Bernstein, and Schmitt, 1999).
Declining wages, in turn, have put housing out of reach for many workers: in every state, more than the minimum wage is required to afford a one- or two-bedroom apartment at Fair Market Rent. A recent U.S. Conference of Mayors report stated that in every state more than the minimum-wage is required to afford a one or two-bedroom apartment at 30% of his or her income, which is the federal definition of affordable housing. In 2001, five million rental households had “worst case housing needs,” which means that they paid more than half their incomes for rent, living in severely substandard housing, or both (Children’s Defense Fund, 2005). The primary source of income for 80% of these households was earnings from jobs (U.S. Housing and Urban Development, 2001).
The connection between impoverished workers and homelessness can be seen in homeless shelters, many of which house significant numbers of full-time wage earners. A survey of 27 U.S. cities found that 17% of persons in homeless situations are employed (U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2004). Surveys in past years have yielded the percentage of homeless working to be as high as 25% (U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2000). In a number of cities not surveyed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors - as well as in many states - the percentage is even higher (National Coalition for the Homeless, 1997).
The future of job growth does not appear promising for many workers: a 1998 study estimated that 46% of the jobs with the most growth between 1994 and 2005 pay less than $16,000 a year; these jobs will not lift families out of poverty (National Priorities Project, 1998). Moreover, 74% of these jobs pay below a livable wage ($32,185 for a family of four).
Thus, for many Americans, work provides no escape from poverty. The benefits of economic growth have not been equally distributed; instead, they have been concentrated at the top of income and wealth distributions. A rising tide does not lift all boats, and in the United States today, many boats are struggling to stay afloat.