In the United States our economic system is more or less a meritocratic system. It is not a perfect meritocracy (we all know someone who got a job because of a parent or well connected uncle rather than their skills), but for the most part, hard working people are able to get promoted based on their effort, talent, and skills. If you deserve an opportunity to advance you can normally find an avenue forward, even if it is winding and has some setbacks along the way. For most of us this works to our advantage and helps keep our economy, universities, and public institutions moving forward. But for the homeless people in our society, this turns into a crushing system that doesn’t provide second chances.
“The homeless are clearly the last hired and the first fired,” writes Christopher Jencks in his book The Homeless. Our system of meritocracy awards the hard working and those who are willing to show up early, stay late, and put on a smile in the face of upset customers. Homeless people often have trouble on all of these fronts, partly due to the very nature of their homelessness. They may not have good transportation to a job, making it hard to be early. If they have to be in a shelter by a certain time or risk losing their spot, then they cannot stay late on a job. The stress, anxiety, and disrespect of homelessness often makes it hard for the homeless to have good people skills, meaning they have trouble with performance on the low-wage jobs available to them.
On top of this, being homeless itself is a ding against someone in our meritocratic system. The homeless are seen as defective, so even if someone sets out to be hard working and courteous on a job where they have the right skill set for success, they start further behind everyone else. They are only offered a job when no other employees could be found. Starting behind everyone else means they have more ground to cover to catch up and be seen on par with everyone else. They are constantly under more scrutiny. This makes them vulnerable to being fired even if they are trying hard and doing well. When work is slow and layoffs happen, the homeless are often easily justified as the first fired in our meritocracy.
Any system is going to have shortcomings and the systems of meritocracy in our workplace are no exception. Most of us can do well in meritocratic institutions, but outliers on the extreme ends, the hyper-wealthy and the homeless, don’t have the same experiences in a meritocracy as the majority of us. The homeless can’t get a good start in a meritocratic system, and are penalized before they even try to begin. I would argue that we need a universal jobs guarantee to ensure that the homeless can find some type of work to do, even if it is ultimately menial and meaningless, to help them get a foothold and avoid being the last hired and first fired from any job they try to maintain. Guaranteeing we can get everyone some type of paid work will enable the poor to find a benefit in participating in our meritocracy rather than being a left-out extremity.