Against Poverty and Homelessness, Government Can Work

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Lady Bird Johnson, the first lady, visiting a Head Start classroom in 1966.

Photo by: NARA

Lady Bird Johnson, the first lady, visiting a Head Start classroom in 1966.

Robert Hess, a former commissioner of the city’s Department of Homeless Services and founder of Housing Solutions USA, died in December after a battle with cancer. At the time of his death he was working on a book, “When Government Works.” The following is taken from the first chapter:

Visionary. Groundbreaking. Unrealistic. Unworkable. Mayor Elect Bill de Blasio’s agenda for New York City is surely the most far-reaching—and challenged—plan to change the face of New York City. From a proposal to provide universal pre-K education for city kids, to programs to fight hunger, poverty, discrimination and homelessness, de Blasio’s Tale of Two Cities—one wealthy and flourishing, the other rapidly falling deeper into poverty—has struck fear and raised hopes in the hearts of the residents of both.

These plans are ambitious, complex and controversial because they rely on raising income taxes on the wealthiest New Yorkers. Taxes on those making over $500,000 annually would rise from 3.86 percent to 4.41 percent over a five-year period.

Any tax increase is bound to be met with opposition, and not all of it is motivated by greed. There are valid concerns about bureaucratic inefficiency, past failures, corruption and waste. Many politicians of both parties are reluctant to support the vast and presumably costly changes needed to effectively address poverty. The failures of government are always scrutinized more harshly than any success story. Successful programs do not always receive the attention they deserve. In both instances, we often fail to learn from these experiences, falling back on programs that are no longer viable, rather than taking the bold, creative, and effective steps needed

Traditional solutions no longer work, as the widening gap between rich and poor clearly shows. Forty-six percent of the population of New York City lives below the poverty line. The homeless population is growing—on a given night, 50,000 people including 21,000 children sleep in a shelter. Many more are in imminent danger of becoming homeless because of foreclosure, eviction, job loss, disability and illness.

One of the most challenging and complex issues on the mayor’s agenda is solving the problem of homelessness in New York. The homeless population is highly diverse and spans many distinct groups with specific problems and needs. Veterans, the elderly, single mothers, immigrants, the working poor, the disabled, battered women—all can be counted among the homeless. People living on the streets who are fearful of accepting help are the most visible segment of the homeless, but by no means the only ones in need.

Lasting, cost-effective and viable solutions demand a multi-faceted, creative approach that calls on the resources of city, state and federal agencies, working in tandem with the private sector and community organizations. In New York City, there are 23 such agencies addressing the problem of homelessness including HUD, Veterans Administration, FEMA, Children’s Services, Legal Aid and NYPD’s Department of Homeless Services police force. Additionally, there are numerous shelters, soup kitchens, and service agencies operated by nonprofit groups. To some, that sounds like a bureaucratic nightmare. To others, the slippery slope of socialism. At best, it may be dismissed as useless Utopian thinking—government just doesn’t work and no amount of programs can make it function well.

Wrong. Government can work. It does work and more often than politicians, media and conventional wisdom would have us believe.

As deputy managing director for special needs housing and responsible for the Office of Emergency Shelter and Services in Philadelphia, I was privileged to see an entire city effectively come to the aid of hundreds of victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Led by the visionary mayor, John Street, we successfully coordinated the resources of city, state and federal agencies with aid from the city’s businesses, churches, hospitals, schools, sports teams, community organizations and the generosity of the people of Philadelphia. In one Labor Day Weekend, we put a comprehensive plan in place that over several months housed, fed, cared for and eventually relocated over 1,400 victims of the catastrophic storm. It took a Herculean effort and the commitment of effective and innovative public servants who showed a shocked and concerned nation that even in the face of FEMA’s disastrous bungling, government can, did and must work.

Temporary, Band-Aid solutions are not the answer to the problem. Certainly getting at-risk people off the streets and into a shelter is crucial. But our long-term goal is to find permanent, affordable housing that can be sustained by creating jobs. The key word here is “affordable.” The minimum wage has not kept pace with the cost of housing and not just in New York City. The lack of decent, safe and reasonably priced housing impacts virtually every city in the nation. The working poor are increasingly challenged to make ends meet and too often, food comes off the table in order to keep the roof overhead.

Marshaling these resources may seem difficult and expensive. But the results of people living on the streets or in temporary shelters are far more costly, in terms of the suffering, illness, addiction and crime these situations create. It costs New York City an estimated $30,000 per person, per year to serve the needs of those who do not have a permanent home.

These funds could be much more effectively spent on programs that create affordable housing and jobs that enable citizens to pay for that housing and other basic necessities—food, clothing, and utilities.

Fifty years ago, Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty with revolutionary programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, the Food Stamp Act and Head Start. Today, millions of Americans from every walk of life rely on Medicare and Medicaid to provide health care. The recent cuts in food stamps seriously compromised an effective program that helped Americans at risk for hunger. Head Start’s success in providing early education opportunities for poor children has inspired many new programs, including de Blasio’s call for universal pre-K education. In the first five years of Johnson’s War on Poverty, the number of Americans living below the poverty line decreased from 19.5 million in 1964 to 12.1 million in 1969.

Today that rate is trending upwards. Fifty million Americans, 13 million of them children, live below the poverty level. Much of that progress is being eroded as the gap between rich and poor widens. From 1973-1993, the top one percent of Americans saw their incomes grow by 70 to 80 percent. Today, that now-infamous one percent owns 40 percent of U.S. wealth. Income disparity is nothing less than a serious threat, not just to our economy but to the very democracy we cherish. As more middle-class Americans fall into poverty and more are on the streets, anger and conflict are bound to grow. Historically, poverty and income disparity are at the root of most revolutions and social unrest. We should not delude ourselves that America is immune to this kind of class warfare.

President Johnson recognized that the causes of poverty are multi-faceted and that “no single weapon will suffice.” This is true today, although many of the many of the causes of poverty have changed and increased in complexity. In addition to the widening income gap, we must find solutions to problems caused by unemployment, recession and jobs moved overseas, a rise in the rate of single parents as head of household, low wages and rising costs – these are difficult issues that must be addressed with all the public and private resources we can muster.

With vision, innovation and commitment, government can work.

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