Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Bob Kuttner on Homelessness

My interview with economist Robert Kuttner, founder and co-editor of The American Prospect magazine, a regular columnist for the Boston Globe, and a frequent guest on TV and radio shows where these things are discussed, comes out in Wednesday's Real Change. His new book, The Squandering of America, is subtitled “how the failure of our politics undermines our prosperity.” Kuttner argues that the corporate capture of the democratic process has resulted in windfall profits for the wealthy at the great expense of average Americans. Our choices, he warns, are to build a citizen’s movement that curbs the power of wealthy elites, or face continued decline and inevitable economic disaster. Here's a brief excerpt.

RC: One of the things that struck me about the American Prospect special issue on poverty was that there was no mention of homelessness. How did that happen?

I don’t have a good explanation for it. Maybe we just dropped the ball. We have written about homelessness in other issues.

RC: I can venture a guess. Homelessness seems more manageable when approached as a technocratic social services issue, as opposed to a problem of growing poverty and inequality. Government reframes the issue in a de-politicized way, and homeless advocates generally follow their lead.

I think that’s right. It’s often said that one of the problems Democrats have is that Republicans can reduce their ideology to a bumper sticker and Democrats can’t. So the Republican story is “Markets work, governments don’t. Poor people reflect poor values.” That’s nine words. You can put it all on a bumper sticker.

I think the typical middle class person who walks by someone who is homeless sees that person as dysfunctional. Either they look strange to the middle class, and you conclude that that person is mentally ill, or they look okay and the middle class person says, “Well gee, why isn’t that person working?”

Instead of seeing this as a failure of capitalism — as a failure of government to provide enough good jobs, to pay a living wage, to have decent housing policies and adequate mental health services — it’s seen as a problem of marginality and dysfunction. So, if we did not include homelessness, shame on us.

RC: Why do you think there is so little discussion of structural unemployment and the people who have, statistically speaking, just dropped off the radar?

I think it is the fracturing of the coalition that used to exist between the working middle class, the working poor, and the very poor. The periods when that coalition was together is when you had transformative social policies like the New Deal and Great Society. Those were the few periods in America when we actually had progressive politics.

It’s too easy for people who have jobs to ignore people who don’t have jobs. I have this polite argument with John Edwards that goes, “Look, it’s magnificent that you are talking about the bottom fifteen percent and you will go to heaven for talking about the bottom fifteen percent, but if you want to go to the White House, maybe you want to talk about the bottom seventy percent.”

Increasingly, the difference between the bottom seventy percent and the bottom fifteen percent is one of degree. The bottom fifteen are a lot poorer, but the bottom seventy percent have the same vulnerability. It’s less a problem with structural unemployment than of the vulnerability that almost everybody has to losing their jobs, losing their health coverage, losing their retirement coverage, losing the ability to have work that pays a living wage.

The job of political organizing and leadership is to remind somebody who’s making fifty or sixty thousand dollars a year that they’re just as vulnerable. People have those worries privately, but that needs to be politicized.

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