"The greatness and the genuine trait of your thought and writings lie on the fact that you positively and interestingly make use of philosophical thoughts and thoughtfulness in order to deeply and concretely cogitate about America's social issues. . . . This does not mean that your thought is reducible to your era: your thought, being inspired by issues characterizing your era . . . , overcomes your era and will still likely be up to date even after your era, for future generations." Bruno Valentin

Monday, November 17, 2014

Homelessness in the U.S.: A Reflection of American Values

According to a report by the National Center on Family Homelessness in 2014, nearly 2.5 million American children were homeless at some point in 2013.[1] The U.S. Department of Education had reported that 1.3 million homeless children were going to school. California, which accounted for one-eighth of the U.S. population at the time, had one-fifth of the 2.5 million, which comes out to nearly 527,000. The relatively high cost of living and shortage of low-income housing, along with a largely stagnant minimum wage, are the more visible factors behind the gap.

In addition, a subtler underlying contributor—more paradigmatic—renders sustainable shelter insecure and even elusive for many people who go from paycheck to paycheck. What I have in mind here is the assumption that housing is and should be a commodity. That is to say, we use the market mechanism to allocate houses, condos, and apartments. To be sure, matching supply to demand is in itself helpful to low-income people, the assumption that the prices they pay—for example, more money due to speculators—must vary accordingly is problematic, as well as unnecessary. The Section Eight housing program, for example, separates the amounts that low-income people pay for rent from the rents that property-owners accept.

We can go even further and question whether the rents (and housing prices) determined by the market should be acceptable to society. For example, speculators bought up foreclosed properties in the U.S. during the housing slump that began in 2007. The cost of houses (and thus rents) in such markets was higher than would otherwise have been the case. Low-income families that might otherwise have had shelter may have gone homeless as a result. In the tradeoff here between speculators and homelessness, societal values can be seen. Put another way, tolerating homelessness so economic liberty can encompass residential housing reflects a value judgment.

In summary, the relatively large number of homeless children reflects a tacit societal judgment of priorities premised on the assumption that housing should be a commodity fully subject to the market mechanism. That speculators can take advantage of it to profit at the expense of people going homeless suggests that the American collective judgment may be too extreme—meaning that it accepts a high marginal pain at one pole (i.e., homelessness) in order to be able to hug the other pole. This can explain why shelter as a basic human right is virtually absent from the public discourse in the United States.

[1] David Crary and Lisa Leff, “Number of Homeless Children in America Surges to All-Time High: Report,” The Associated Press, November 17, 2014.