Ending family homelessness: A tale of two systems

We need to remember we're all in the same boat — except the super-rich.

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Robert Reich

We need to remember we're all in the same boat — except the super-rich.

It's the best of times, it's the worst of times — depending on who you are. Robert Reich made this clear in his keynote speech at the Conference on Ending Family Homelessness in Oakland, Ca., on Thursday (Feb. 10).

It's the best of times, financially at least, for the vastly wealthy top 10 percent of the American population. Reich, who took a couple of hours away from his teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, where he is chancellor's professor of public policy, began his address by noting that the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed above 12,000 two days previously. It was the first time in 2-1/2 years. “And corporations are now sitting on more than $1 trillion in cash,” he added.

With this extraordinary accrual of wealth, Reich asked, are there more jobs out there? And is there a higher level of public funding for solutions to social problems caused by unemployment and poverty, such as family homelessness?

No — because America now has “two economies,” he said: one for the rich, and one for the rest of us. And the rich seem to have lost sight of the fact that we're all in this together.

The theme of the conference, sponsored by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, was all about the latter principle. To end homelessness for families, every federally funded agency, program, and provider of services for this population, across the nation, must stop thinking of itself as an autonomous entity with its own dollars and purposes, and start working together with others.

The federal government is putting financial muscle behind this demand. Future funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), supporting homeless programs within organizations in each city or county, will depend on how well they work together as coordinated systems. After all, the way each provider uses resources has reverberations for all.

If only this wisdom from HUD would infect officials who set other kinds of policy in Washington. Reich, who was secretary of labor under President Clinton, was amazed that they aren't feeling sufficiently alarmed to take the steps that history demonstrates actually work to end a Great Recession.

The Great Depression was turned around, Reich explained, by the short-term expedient of government spending. The current recession will only be prolonged by deep cuts in government spending for programs on which poor people and working families depend — which is what the Republican Congress promises to do.

Clearly, Reich said, with an economy in need of a spending boost to end the recession, it won't happen when the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans hold 90 percent of the nation's assets. It can't be ended when corporations enhance their profits by “selling overseas from their foreign operations while cutting costs — in particular, labor payrolls and benefits — here at home,” he said. It won't be ended by corporations now holding on to their enormous wealth instead of hiring.

How can the recession be ended if the wealthiest live like lonesome cowboys, with no shared responsibility for the economic health of the nation whose public highways, bridges, libraries, schools, and fiscal policies helped make possible their own acquisition of wealth?

Reich proposed, for example, that hedge-fund and private equity managers pay income taxes at the ordinary-income rate of 35 percent on their billions of dollars in earnings last year, instead of at the capital gains rate of 15 percent. The result would be $20 billion in tax revenues, some of which could be leveraged for the support of programs that help the poor and the homeless get back on their feet.

Closing this tax loophole would be especially fair and wise at a time when American income has concentrated at the highest rate since 1928, he said. In the late 1970s, the richest 1 percent of Americans earned about 9 percent of the nation's income. By the start of the Great Recession the rich were getting more than 23 percent of total income. Yet real income for the rest of us has remained stagnant, and the number of Americans in poverty is rising.

Meanwhile, a sense of shared responsibility isn't asked of the wealthy. Instead it's demanded of social workers on the front lines trying to secure housing for families that have lost their homes due to unemployment and other systemic causes, and for children homeless through no fault of their own. The national Oakland conference, like the Washington state conference last fall, made it clear that performance assessments used to calculate merit for funding will measure the efficiency and effectiveness of entire citywide, countywide, and regional homeless systems. The question isn't “Is my agency succeeding?” but “How are all of us in this geographical area doing in solving the problem?”

Just as no man is an island (at least John Donne thought so), no homeless program or provider can be an island, now. No one can stand alone — unless you're an American with enough wealth to wall yourself off for awhile.


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