Political causes for homelessness, potential student impact

[Editor’s Note: This is the second part of a two part series on homelessness. If you missed part one, you can read it at http://my.highschooljournalism.org/ia/ames/ahs/article.cfm?eid=8411&aid=129836.] “The sad truth is that there really isn’t a safety net for most people who lose their homes in this country,” said Vic Moss, the director of the Ames Emergency Residence Project. A law called the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 placed lifetime limits on how much assistance a person can receive from the government. “The idea was if you took away these supports, there would be more incentive for people to make it on their own,” Moss said. “There may be some people who benefit, because it provided the incentive that some needed to start looking for work. In many cases, however, there are people who, while working, still can’t afford to pay for their housing.” The welfare reform represented a philosophical shift in America’s mindset. The 1996 act was an example of Social Darwinism, the idea that Darwin’s theory of natural selection can be applied to people, as well. Social Darwinists believe that in order to build the strongest society, the “weak” should be left behind. The opposing theory, which Moss takes, is that we’re all in this together, and the best way to strengthen a society is to help lift up those who need help. “I really disagree with what’s happened, but I’m in the minority when it comes to wanting to change this,” Moss said. “I believe that we should have a national policy that says if people work full time at a job that is important to our society, they should be able to earn enough, or get enough support, to afford the minimum necessities of life. That should not be a controversial belief. But in fact, you don’t get anywhere with this when you try to make it legislative policy.” The fact that legislation like this is never really talked about is evidence of society’s neglect of the poor. Even raising the minimum wage is extremely controversial, though it would have to be double what it is now to meet the lowest of living standards. “It has always tailed way behind the cost of living,” Moss said. “It was raised this year for the first time since 1997. After 10 years of no change, the increase wasn’t even enough to make up for inflation that occurred during that time.” Even after the increase, Moss predicts that things will get worse for the poor. “The benefit of having an increase in minimum wage will be lost in two or three years, and if they don’t look at it again for another 10, people will be worse off than they are now,” he said. So why is the situation so grim? “The poor have almost no political clout,” Moss said. “There’s no organization of low-income individuals. Those at the bottom end are the least likely to be politically active. More than half of the people below the poverty line are children who can’t vote. And their parents are often too busy or demoralized by just trying to survive that they don’t get involved in caucuses or vote at a very high rate.” “There are only a few individuals in the state lobbying on behalf of the low-income people, and for each of them there are probably several hundred lobbyists lobbying on behalf of the power structure in the state,” Moss said. The effects of this are seen when Representatives get hundreds of emails and phone calls overnight about a bill that has to do with banking, but little or no feedback when a bill about low-income housing or homelessness comes up. “They take that silence as a lack of support for these issues, and think there’s no need for it.” Evidence of the lack of power that poor people have can be seen in the practice of predatory car title lending. According to Moss, the practice was one of the biggest scams ever perpetuated in Iowa. “Some individuals found a loophole in the law that allowed them to charge unlimited interest. This was a case where desperate people would come in and give them a car title as collateral on a loan, and then have to pay interest rates reaching as high as 360 percent on the loan,” Moss said. “It took three years of votes in the House and Senate to get this thing closed. The car title lenders had an organization and they were spending thousands of dollars lobbying and supporting legislators’ election campaigns, preventing closing the loophole.” What can ordinary people like you do to keep things from getting worse, and help bring people out of poverty? “Be an advocate for those who don’t have a voice,” Moss said. That means getting involved politically, taking up a particular issue and finding out how the system works, using your time and anyone you can persuade to join you, and working on the issue. This doesn’t just mean writing to your local legislator and saying, “Gee, I wish you’d do something about homelessness.” “What you have to do is find out when issues are coming up, and find out which committee is meeting on it and when, and contact those people with proposed solutions,” Moss said. Most of the things happen behind the scenes, in committees and sub-committees. Finding out what’s going on in these small groups is the first step. “It’s especially easy on the internet; you can track everything that’s going on in Des Moines,” Moss said. “You can use your time strategically, and accomplish a great deal, just by being organized. “You can know when the time is to speak up, and when the time is to write a letter to the editor. If you write a letter today about an issue that’s going to come up next year, people will have forgotten about it by then,” he said. If the letter is timed just right, however, when legislators are voting on specific bills, they’ll feel the pressure from that letter, regardless of which party they’re in. “The first priority of your senator or representative after getting elected may be to get re-elected. It may be almost irrelevant which party a person is a member of if they feel that a substantial number of people care about a certain issue and will express their concern elect orally.” Therein lies the key to conquering homelessness.