Sunday, December 29, 2013

The "Hammock" of Homelessness

(A memorial stone at a cemetery on Roanoke Island reads, "These are the graves of homeless men who died in work camps while employed by the Department of the Interior, National Park Service, on beach erosion control work in the counties of Dare, Hyde and Currituck, 1936-1941." Information from local residents, as well as a project summary card at the National Archives, indicates that these men worked in the WPA, and that their work camp was located at, or near, what is now Fort Raleigh National Historic Site. Photo by Brent McKee.)   

In March of 2012, U.S. Congressman Paul Ryan (R-Wis) said "...we don't want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives." (See "Paul Ryan Wants 'Welfare Reform Round 2'")

The fact of the matter is that most developed countries have stronger social safety nets than the United States; and many of these countries have more equitable economies and lower unemployment rates than the United States. (See, e.g., "U.S. poverty rates higher, safety net weaker than in peer countries," "U.S. median wealth only 27th in the world," and "The World Factbook, Country Comparison: Unemployment Rate"). If having a strong social safety net equals a lazy, complacent society, unwilling to work, as Ryan suggests, then shouldn't all countries with social safety nets stronger than the United States be experiencing sky-high unemployment?

(William Born was homeless, and passed away in 1939, while employed in the WPA. He was 64. Mr. Born must have had a rough life, but at least he had the dignity of passing away under a roof (the work camp--see previous picture and caption) and while working on a useful project. Today's homeless have no such opportunities. They are demonized--for political purposes--as lazy "takers," living on the social safety net "hammock." Some homeless Americans are even freezing to death on their "hammocks." Photo by Brent McKee.)     

Consider: After unemployment insurance was instituted into a national program, during the New Deal, why did America's unemployment rate not increase to astronomical levels? Shouldn't this cushy "hammock" of a program caused the majority of people to stop working? And why did America's economy boom in the mid-1930s (during the height of the New Deal) and boom again after World War II, when social safety net programs, like unemployment insurance, were formulated and then implemented? I mean, we were repeatedly warned, right? For example, in the 1930s, one business leader warned Congress that unemployment insurance "would undermine the fabric of our economic and social life by destroying initiative, discouraging thrift, and stifling individual responsibility." (See "Will Heartless Republicans Screw Themselves By Screwing The Jobless?") Wow, isn't it amazing that America still exists, after eight decades of Darth Vader's evil unemployment insurance program?!?

And if America's social safety net is such a hammock, then why do we have so many homeless citizens? Shouldn't our social safety net "hammock" allow them to live in luxury condos, sipping martinis and laughing at all the poor saps who have to work for a living? Hasn't anyone showed our tens of thousands of homeless veterans where their hammocks are? 

(In the United States, losing a job can easily lead to homelessness, especially if you don't come from a well-to-do family. In this picture, we see a homeless person enjoying a Paul Ryan Safety Net Hammock. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.)

The truth is, America has a very miserly social safety net because (1) we do not, as a nation, believe in the concepts of market failure & market imperfection (and thus, we blame the individual for everything), and (2) we have very little empathy for our fellow citizens. Thus, a charlatan like Paul Ryan can come along and declare that our social safety net is fast becoming a "hammock," despite facts and data to the contrary, and millions will nod and say, "Yep, certainly is!!" Politicians like Ryan know that stereotyping the less fortunate as lazy "takers" who want to ride on the backs of others, is a sure-fire way to get votes and campaign cash from conservative circles. That's why you will never see Ryan, and those like him, spend too much time (if any time at all) on issues like tax evasion by the wealthy, insider trading, junk securities, or accounting fraud. After all, no politician wants to piss off the people who are filling up their campaign trough. (And yes, many Democrats are turning a blind-eye to white collar crime too, and for that very same reason.)

Anyway, for 2014, I guess we should all pray, and cross our fingers, that we lose our jobs, so that we can finally enjoy the better quality of life that comes with the Paul Ryan Safety Net Hammock.

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