In December 2018 Common Dreams published an article by me called: Bergan County Ended Homelessness, So Can Every Other Community. I covered the story while staying in a homeless shelter in Newark, N.J.
Two days later I took a train into NYC to meet with Donald Burnes, The Founding Director of The Burnes Institute for Poverty and Homelessness in Denver. The Institute commissioned me to provide an excerpt from my book Facing Homelessness for Journeys Out of Homelessness: The Voices of Lived Experience.
During the 1980s and 90s, I lived with extended family in the Theater District. At that time it was part of Times Square, a Red Light District. The Times Square Redevelopment Project – an ad hoc mix of ambitious politicians and real estate developers -- jettisoned my family and me (via eminent domain) along with a slew of pimps and hookers and replaced us with corporate theme parks, Mickey Mouse and Cartoon Action Heroes. Pick your poison; I prefer the former.
What can I say, I guess I was feeling nostalgic. So. I decided to stay and moved into the Bellevue Men’s Homeless Shelter on E. 30th Street.
I didn’t move in there to write about it -- that would be foolish and, frankly, dangerous. At that time, I was working on a book proposal for a U.K. publisher interested in my writing. That didn’t work out.
In two weeks, I will have been in the NYC homeless shelter system for one year. I spent six months at Bellevue, was transferred abruptly –and by mistake -- to a shelter in The Bronx for residents with “severe psychiatric disorders”. It was located in a safe working-class neighborhood and the residents were so heavily medicated that they spent most of their time sleeping. I started working on a play about my experience.Then I was once again abruptly transferred to another shelter, in The Bronx as well, but this time the neighborhood was drug, gang and crime infested -- as was the shelter. It was a bona fide ‘Hell Hole’. I immediately filed for an emergency transfer citing my safety and health.
It worked. I am now in a hotel in Brooklyn.
So, what did I learn from all this that I’d like to pass on?
First of all, the much-vaunted NYC homeless shelter system – didn’t the person who designed this just try to run for president based on its merits? – is not here to help out the average New Yorker who gets caught by a bad break and needs help getting back on their feet.
When that type of person shows up at Bellevue – everyone’s first stop – they are traumatized. Bellevue houses over 400 residents on any given night. 90% of the population is Black and Hispanic and almost the same percent of them are coming directly from prison, mental institutions, and in-house drug rehab programs.The homeless shelter is simply their next stop on the crib to grave incarceration enterprise that has been in effect for the last half-century.
Let’s take a look at how this came about.In the mid-1960s several major American cities experienced violent, dramatic uprisings among their Black residents. In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson issued an executive order to establish The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorder, more popularly known as the Kerner Commission, in order to uncover the root causes of this violence.
The commission concluded, unequivocally, and controversially, that the causes of the civil disorder were “institutional racism and poverty”.
This became the impetus for The Great Society Social Welfare Programs. The lynchpin of these programs were CAPS (Community Action Programs) designed to empower individual leaders in inner city communities with the resources and training to generate their own economic opportunities where they lived. Or, depending on your political and racial persuasion, these programs were designed to ‘entitle’ poor non-whites who had just set ablaze several major American cities while shouting slogans like Black Power! to do more of the same.
The overriding feeling in the congress and country at this time was that what was needed to thwart civil unrest was not social programs but more and better armed police and tougher sentences for violent criminals. Richard Nixon rode ‘a tough on crime’ campaign to a landslide presential election win in 1968. This marked the beginning of the end for our nation’s short-lived flirtation with reconciling racism and poverty in America.
The social welfare programs, however, were not abandoned, or-de-funded entirely, they were simply rendered ineffective or redirected. For the rest of the 1970s it was death by a thousand cuts for Great Society Programs, as both democrats and republicans tried to gingerly address the concerns brought up by the Kerner Commission without losing the base of support critical to each side winning elections, middle-class white voters.
In 1980 Ronald Reagan was elected president and he pulled out a Butcher’s Knife to the Great Society: “The Great Society is the central political error of our time: the flawed notion that government and bureaucracy were the primary vehicle for social change.” Reagan peppered these opinions with blatantly racist claims about prolific check-cashing Cadillac-driving ‘Welfare Queens’ and “Young Bucks buying steaks on food stamps.”
So much for ending racism, or even tempering it.
But Reagan, and others, were right about one thing: once you initiate government programs and fund them, it’s very difficult to end them, whether they work or not.In fact, in the 50 years since the inauguration of grand-scale social welfare programs called The Great Society , the US has spent 22 trillion dollars on maintaining them. This begs the question, don’t you agree? Where in the world did all this money go and what has it accomplished? Thanks for asking; that’s the subject of this article: How Poverty Became a Degenerative American Enterprise.
First of all, what did they accomplish in regard to the recommendations of The Kerner Commission: to eliminate institutional racism and poverty?
In order to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the publication of the Kerner Commission report, the Eisenhower Foundation, the private sector continuation of the original Commission, in 2018 released an update of the report entitled “Healing Our Divided Society.”
In an interview with Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity, Alan Curtis, president of the Eisenhower Foundation, was asked to summarize their findings. “Unfortunately, this 50th anniversary report is saying progress has stagnated in a lot of ways and in some ways we have moved backwards…Since the Kerner Commission, child poverty has increased, overall poverty has increased, income inequality has increased, wealth inequality has increased, school segregation has increased, and incarceration has increased. We had 200,000 people in prison in ’68 and over two million now. What we’ve found is that when the audience is people of color, they understand we are going backwards, but many other people don’t get it, are in denial, or don’t want to do anything about it. Communicating to the American people that things haven’t gotten better and to try and engage them in a conversation is really central.”
With all due respect, sir, good luck with that. Americans are busy right now getting their ‘great’ back on – and that absolutely does not include any namby-pamby Lefty forays into introspection.
One of the points I am making in my argument is that The Great Society did actually accomplish what was after all its deepest, most urgent and immediate mission. To quell the violent uprisings that were ravaging American cities where there were large populations of impoverished non-whites. In the last decade we’ve had several mini eruptions in Black communities following white on black police shootings, and a big national brouhaha after some Black football players took a knee during the national anthem. But no full-scale urban uprisings.
Even though, according to the Eisenhower report, we still have as many or more impoverished, segregated and isolated populations living in our cities and rural areas then when the rioting took place. So, what happened to the fighting spirit of resistance, if you will?
One of the keys to understanding this phenomenon is to recognize the political and cultural dynamics that have been at work from the inception of the Great Society programs. As the world well knows, the US has a penchant for declaring war – not just on places and people, but almost anything really.
In the 1960s Presidents Kennedy and Johnson declared a “War on Poverty” and in the 1970s Presidents Nixon and Reagan declared a ‘War on Crime.’ These two wars were then fought simultaneously in effect providing public assistance to the poor while simultaneously monitoring and criminalizing them. According to The Eisenhower report it worked. The prison population skyrocketed from 200,000 in 1970 to over 2,000,000 today. And there’s more to this part of the story.
President Johnson’s War on Poverty policies were rooted in widely held assumptions – even though they ran contrary to the Kerner Commission report that found institutional white racism to be the primary cause of the poverty and reactionary violence in urban centers -- that it was actually Blacks who instigated the violence that took place. Just because that’s who they are and that’s what they do. Racism is not rational. But it didn’t matter. In order to safeguard his liberal leap of faith into civil rights and social justice Johnson enacted the Law Enforcement Assistance Act that empowered the national government to take a role in militarizing police departments. Almost limitless Federal anti-crime funding was also used to incentivize cash-strapped state social service providers to work hand-in-hand with police departments, courts and prisons. Nixon and Reagan redirected funds ear marked for welfare programs to increase the policing of urban schools and public housing as well as the construction of new prisons. By the 1980s crime control and incarceration dominated national responses to poverty and inequality.
This was not so much a departure from the lofty goals of the Kerner Commission to eliminate institutional racism and poverty as it was a full recognition and realization of the racist punitive policies implemented by both republicans and democrats since the 1960s.
White racial animus and fear of Blacks have been the motivating factors for Trojan Horse social policies and programs, from then until now.But you can’t put all poor people (40 million) in prison. So, what do you do with the rest?
A colleague of mine, Paul Kivel-- educator, activist and writer – wrote an eye-opening essay that I feel answers this vexing question of what to do with the tens of millions of Americans living in poverty: The Ruling Class and the Buffer Zone.
I have been living in The Great American Safety Net or Buffer Zone since 2009 when I lost my home after caring for a terminally ill parent. I can attest that Mr. Kivel’s assessment of how poverty in America has devolved into a self-sustaining degenerate enterprise is pitch perfect. I strongly recommend reading the article entirely. Here are a few excerpts:
OVER THE YEARS THE RULING CLASS has created a series of jobs and occupations for people who will help them maintain their power and wealth. We refer to this as a buffer zone because it acts as a buffer between those at the top of the pyramid and those at the bottom. The buffer zone is not an economic position indicating income or wealth; it is a role that some people perform through their work that helps the system run smoothly and without change.
There is so much concentration of wealth by the ruling class that there is not enough to go around for the rest of the population, especially those who are poorest. Millions are hungry, homeless, without health care, decent jobs, or opportunities for education. Every year hundreds of thousands of people die from the effects of poverty, racism, sexism, and homophobia. If these people died in the streets, there would be constant mass uprisings.
If most people receive minimal levels of care and those who die do so in hospitals, at home, in rest homes, or in prisons, it is less likely that people will add up the total impact of the concentration of wealth. So there are many jobs for people to take care of those at the bottom of the pyramid: nurses, attendants, social workers, teachers, youth workers, child care workers, counselors—poorly paid jobs that provide minimal services to those in need.
If Americans who say they are trying to vanquish racism and poverty fail to recognize what poverty has devolved into, we will through our ignorance continue to support this degenerate apparatus that condemns millions of our fellow Americans to a spirit-numbing existence where the aspiration is not to thrive but to barely survive.The only way we will ever end poverty in this nation is to finally do away with institutional racism and then rebuild our communities, as was mandated in the original Great Society programs. If there is one thing we’ve learned in the last 50 years it is that you cannot do one without the other.