Sunday, January 2, 2011

1990: Grating Injustices

Some of my old articles are stored away in ancient file formats, and my current software has considerable trouble opening them. Re-posting this stuff helps to preserve it in a more contemprary format, which should be good for at least a few more cycles of Moore's Law. I managed to extract this 1990 article from the Santa Cruz Comic News about the legacy of Ronald Reagan. I seem to recall there was a cartoon that went with it; I'll post that later along with adding some links:

Before he fades completely into the sunset, let us pause once more to consider the legacy of Ronald Reagan. Reagan, some of you will recall, was a genial, optimistic individual who served, sporadically, as the 40th president of these here United States. In that role, he informed the hosts of Good Morning, America early in 1984 that "one problem we've had... is the people who are sleeping on the grates, the homeless, who are homeless, you might say, by choice." Reagan's attitude was echoed by his right hand man, Ed Meese, who asserted that people were lining up at soup kitchens only because the food was free, and that the administration would begin taxing unemployment benefits in order to "make being unemployed less attractive." [Mission accomplished there: As a laid-off schoolteacher in 2011, I'm paying that tax, and by George, it is unattractive.]

Reagan and his men were under the impression that millions of Americans had begun sleeping on sidewalks simply to make him look bad, a grating problem that they apparently set out to solve in a characteristically creative fashion: by making sure that these ingrates were outnumbered by homeless folks of a more involuntary nature.

If this was not, in fact, the intent of their policies, then we must assume that some 12.3 million chidren have chosen to live below the officially delineated poverty line. Since six out of every ten jobs created during the Reagan Revolution paid less than $7000 a year, we can either assume that these workers took those jobs because they had no other choice, or that they, too were part of a vast conspiracy designed to embaress our sensitive president. And since the official poverty rate rose from 11.7% at the dawn of the Reagan Era, peaked somewhere in the 15th percentile, and settled in to a fairly constant 13.6% during the sunset, well, either those millions of Americans were impoverished by choice, or Ron just wanted to make sure the folks on the sidewalks had plenty of company.

However many of the homeless are there by choice (and howrver 'free choice " might be defined in these situations) there is little argument that the number of homeless persons has grown significantly during the Gipper's watch. There is plenty of argument, though, about just what that number is. Various sources have placed the total as high as 3 million, though conservatives harrumph that the number is "a myth" and assert that no more than 600,000 Americans are living on the streets these days (a figure roughly equal to the number of full-time workers who slipped below the poverty level during the Reagan years). Affixing the proportion of the blame for the situation on the poor choices of the individuals in question versus the choices of, say, Ronald Reagan, is a matter of considerable partisan debate.

There is even less certainty regarding the number of homeless in 1980, but far fewer of them were workers and families down on their luck. Then, as now, a high percentage of the homeless population consisted of persons who had made the unfortunate choice of becoming mentally ill. Advances in drug technology had made it possible to deinstitutionalize some 400,000 such persons in the previous 25 years. Upon assuming the governorship of California in 1967, Reagan found that a reduction by14,000 in the number of mental patients presented a splendid opportunity for budget savings. Reporters questioning the novice Governor about the elimination of 3700 mental hospital positions were informed that the state was still spending $4800 per year on each patient, and that "we ought to be able to afford soap and towels" for that.

This same let-them-eat-soap attitude pervades Reagan's presidential years with aw-shucks quips too numerous to mention. Far more relevant are the results of his policies, whether by accident or by choice. Early in his administration, for instance, thousands of elderly and disabled Americans were deprived of their Social Security, Medicare, and/or welfare benefits. Many of the them sued and were ultimately found to have been illegally stricken from the rolls, and were subsequently reinstated, at, of course, a higher eventual cost to the taxpayers. The administration, though, in a perhaps inartful use of euphemism, adopted what it called a "policy of nonacquiescence," refusing to concede that the court decisions set any precedent for the illegal deletees not savvy enough to have sued. In the final days of the administration, an executive order was handed down restricting the appeals process for those deprived of benefits.

One of the core tenets of Reaganism was something called "the New Federalism," which meant that he certainly hoped that those programs eliminated by the federal government would somehow be picked up by the states and municipalities. Then, in a flash of the famous Reagan humor, he deleted the revenue-sharing program begun in the seventies, which would have made assumption of those burdens possible. The net effect of this on the local level, say here in Santa Cruz, was that cities had to make up much-resented new taxes simply to continue funding their existing programs. Many larger cities spent much of their scarce resourses on gentrifying their downtown areas, eliminating unsightly low income housing areas.

Perhaps the most significant choice made by the Reagan Administration concerned the functions of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD. It was discovered that the purposes of the agency would best be served by parcelling the available funds out to wealthy Republicans, who would presumably "trickle down " a portion thereof on some of the "deserving poor." One enterprising employee, Deborah Gore Dean, found it easier to bypass this process by stealing HUD money outright and tithing an appropriate amount to charity.

During the Reagan years, federal subsidies for low income housing were cut by 60%. In effect, virtually no such housing was built in America during those years (apart from a few apartment houses hammered together by Jimmy Carter and his friends). Just coincidentally, the Reagan Era was when an undetermined number of low-income people chose to begin sleeping on sidewalk grates. Relatively high interest rates combined with stagnant or declining wages for working people meant that home ownership has declined for the first time since the Great Depression, by as much as 7% in the key 25 to 39-year-old bracket. When these people choose to stay in apartments paying free-market rents, they put the squeeze on the lower end of the rental market.

While, by any measure, the poor have gotten demonstrably poorer in the Reagan Era, the rich have gotten dramatically richer, with the top two quintiles accounting for the entire increase in median family income. The top tax rate was cut from 70% to 28%, and many multinationals had "negative tax burdens " until this was corrected by the great tax reform of 1986. Much of the national debt, which has tripled to nearly 3 trillion, is owed to bankers and bondholders, very few of whom choose to live on the streets. And while many poor families had their income taxes cut in the '86 reform, their overall burden was still higher because of the massive Social Security payroll tax increases of '83.

The result of this unprecedented upward shift in wealth is that two thirds of the housing built in the eighties was targeted for the upscale market- vacation homes, condos and the like- while production of starter homes for young couples has shrunk by half. Almost as an afterthought, the 1986 tax reform eliminated tax incentives for development of low income housing and depreciation allowances for rental apartments. It does, indeed, seem as though our government could not have exacerbated the problem of homelessness any further had they chosen to.

The problem is likely to get far worse before it gets better. Reagan's kinder, gentler sucessor has declared, in a memorable turn of phrase, that we have "more will than wallet," most of the available wallet being used to bail out looted S&Ls to the tune of 200-300 billion. Nor is any more than miniscule shaving to be expected from the Pentagon budget, the threat of a Soviet invasion having been replaced by the the threat of an invasion of Third World despots, or perhaps Bolivian coca farmers. The miraculous Reagan Recovery, just now making up for the ground lost during the postwar-record recession of '81-'83, has got to end someday. When it does, we will find that it will require a lot of wallet to provide gratings for all the people choosing to sleep on the sidewalks.

Ron himself has got his immediate housing needs taken care of, his friends having taken up a collection to buy him a Bel Air mansion, presumably to keep him in the style to which he and Nancy became accustomed after spending $44 million refurbishing the White House. The only other mode of housing development that ever interested him- like his less charismatic clone Deukmejian- was prison construction. The nation's prison population grew a staggering 84% during the Reagan years, and construction continues at an unprecedented rate. This will no doubt provide housing for a large number of the homeless, an alarming percentage of whom are drug addicts. And in the end, it may well prove more cost-effective than providing the treatment centers slashed from the federal budget at the time the current Drug War was announced.

The harsh reality, as Michael Kamber points out in the December Z Magazine, is that "this country is built on a system of winners and losers. The price of being in such a system as it becomes more stratified is that the winners may have to endure the guilt of watching the losers lying on the ground, and of course the losers have to lie on the ground..." The only way our system will become less stratified, with a resultant reduction in people lying on the ground, is for us as a society to choose to make it so.

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