My wife and I have been listening to the Harry Potter books on Audible so I have been reminded of one of the key ideas from the series – the idea of the self-fulfilling prophecy. A prophecy is made about Harry Potter, the big bad guy, Voldemort, hears part of the prophecy and acts on it, ultimately fulfilling the prophecy and bringing about his own doom. The question, which is asked directly in the book, is whether any of the events of story would have happened if the prophecy had not been overheard. If the bad guy hadn’t been afraid of the prophecy to try to prevent it, would the prophecy have been meaningless?
“Regardless of why people are on the streets, giving them a place to live that offers a modicum of privacy and stability is usually the most important thing we can do to improve their lives. Without stable housing, nothing else is likely to work. If people have housing, the rest of their life may improve. Even if it does not, at least they have a home,” writes Christopher Jencks in The Homeless.
Housing first solutions are inconvenient truths and feel like repugnant conclusions. Giving people housing without requiring that they earn it through work, through sobriety, or through any other qualification that would make them deserving seems to go completely against what it means to be American. It feels like it excuses poor decisions, ignores people’s criminality or drug use, and tacitly approves of laziness. If we want people to be a productive member of society, then we should incentivize them for good behavior and punish them for bad behavior. Giving people housing before we ensure they are living up to our expectations violates the basic ideas we have for incentivizing people to make the tough decisions that are necessary to function in society. However, as the quote from Jencks suggests, it is often necessary.
Withholding housing doesn’t seem to be a solution to our current homelessness crisis in the United States. It seems instead to push people onto the streets, into charity shelters, and into tents alongside our roadways and greenspaces. We complain about the homeless, try to push them out of our cities, and wish we had solutions. But we don’t think to provide more services, more supports, and real forms of housing to the homeless as a solution.
The argument that Jencks and others make is that we need to give people housing, some space of their own, and some stability before we can expect them to get their lives back on track. Our society operates with the assumption that people have a home. Without a house you sometimes can’t receive services and supports the government makes an effort to provide. You can’t get a job. You can’t make plans because you don’t know where you will be sleeping tomorrow and you can’t store any food or grooming products. Without a stable home, you can’t do the things society is telling you to do in order to receive help and get your life moving in the right direction. Housing first may not align with American values on its face, but it is necessary for living up to the values we espouse.
My wife is a special education teacher, and she is truly excellent at what she does. She currently works with families with children between the age of 0 and 3 and helps teach them how to raise a child with disabilities or physical/intellectual delays. She is incredibly skilled at what she does, and performs a role for our society that I would be terrible at. I am simply not an infant person. I could learn a lot about them and become good at working with infants and their families, I am sure, but it is not something that would feel natural to me, at least not in the way that it does for my wife. Contrasting her, I am a good writer (in my own opinion at least) and I have a set of skills in working with data and information, in coalition and team building, and in speaking and communication that my wife does not have (she has worked to be good in all these areas, but again, it is more natural for me than her just as working with children with disabilities is more natural for her than me). The kinds of jobs and careers that come naturally to me would be a major challenge for my wife, just as her job would be a major challenge to me. We fill different roles within society based on our individual strengths.
I think about social roles a lot, especially how far back in our evolutionary history our varying social roles could possibly tie back to. In small hunter gatherer tribes, I can imagine people having many overlapping roles, but also many different specialized roles. It would be hard for people to bring children along on certain hunting or gathering expeditions, and that would necessitate a split in terms of social roles. It is natural then that some people who were better skilled at child rearing would watch over children at a central location while others would go off to hunt. This is the most basic presentation of the idea of social roles I can think of, and I recognize that it is probably too simplistic and vulnerable to abuse by those who want to limit women’s rights, but I think it is a helpful starting point to understand how we should think about the roles we all play within society and how our current social expectations of personal responsibility can run against our possibly evolved social roles. [I want to stress that I am not saying men are by default strong hunters and women are by default fragile childcare workers. I don’t see any reason why a spectrum of skills wouldn’t have some men be naturally more inclined to childcare work, cooking, or other typically feminine coded roles with some women more aligned toward hunting, fire fighting, or other typically masculine coded roles.]
In his book The Homeless, Christopher Jencks writes, “In most cases we hold adults responsible for their own actions. But when people are too young, … or [too intellectually disabled], to be held responsible, society has to designate someone else to assume this responsibility. When people’s relatives cannot or will not play this role, society needs to create an institution to act in loco parentis.”
This quote highlights the role of personal responsibility and the conflicts between our social roles and our personal responsibility that can arise in the United States. Not all of us would be great at watching over an assisting a family member or friend who was dealing with severe depression, an addiction, or who had an intellectual disability that prevented them from working. However, for many people in our country, this responsibility is forced on them by a social system that provides minimal support to people with disabilities or who have had mental health challenges. Regardless of the role we are best suited for, sometimes we end up having to care for an elderly loved one with no other person to turn to, or for a spouse facing suicidal thoughts, or for a child dealing with a drug addiction. Not all of us are well positioned to help such individuals, and sometimes those people who need help and support find themselves on the street and on a path toward homelessness when the family around them cannot support them.
That is the warning that Liebow’s quote contains. Without solid institutions (I am not using “institutions” in the sense of a mental institution to warehouse people) we cannot provide the support that people really need. We will force everything into the personal responsibility framework that dominates our society. We force responsibility of others onto family members who may not be well suited to perform that role. The argument is that we need better social systems and structures that ensure that people who need help, whether it is counseling, healthcare treatment for addiction, or life services for those with intellectual disabilities along with assistance for their supporting families is necessary in order to reduce and potentially eliminate homelessness. We cannot solve our problem by continuing to heap greater responsibilities onto the shoulders of those who are not well suited or positioned to bear such responsibilities. Those who do manage to support people in our existing system deserve praise, but those who fail don’t fail entirely on their own. Their failure is a social failure, reflecting the over-reliance of personal responsibility in our society and the unreasonable demands such a system can place upon people who don’t have the right skills and abilities to handle such daunting challenges.
Like many people, my family is complex. I have two uncles who have finally re-connected after at least 20 years of not talking to each other. At the same time, one of those uncles and another are now no longer talking to each other even though they have been business partners for over 20 years. Half of my family doesn’t talk to the other half, and one Grandma only speaks with me, though she mostly only asks me about my siblings. The relationships are challenging, often frustrating, but like virtually all humans, we all still find emotional support in the form of family.
Regardless as to whether family members are living or deceased, whether we know our ancestors or have no knowledge of our familial roots, and whether we have close relationships with family or whether our ties have faded, we all seem to be primed to find emotional support in family and in the idea of family. I really only recently learned about the heritage of my family from my dad’s side, and while I have lived most of my life without knowing any of that heritage, I am now able to find pride in the roots of that side of my family. I also look back at my dad’s dad, a troubled man who made some bold choices to get our family to the United States, and I find emotional support in his story, even if the man was not ultimately the best role model one could have. The point is that despite the contradictions in people and in families, despite the distance in time and space that arise between family members, we hold on to our families as something special, and find support in them, even if they are not around to actually support us.
Elliot Liebow writes about this phenomenon in the case of homeless women in Washington DC in the early 90’s in his book Tell Them Who I Am. Many of the women who he met were divorced, some had kids, and many had lost almost all connections with family. Nevertheless, family, the stories they had about their families, and the ideas and memories of family gave the women emotional suppport. The women didn’t want to burden their families with their own homelessness, demonstrating a real respect for their family members who were doing better than they were. They were impressed by children whose lives were on better paths, and they even sometimes remembered former spouses in a positive light. For women who had few deep connections or meaningful relationships in their homeless lives, the past relationships and memories of deep connections still fueled them to keep moving and surviving each day.
Humans need connections and families are the first connections we form. Even though today the families we chose are sometimes closer to us than the families we are born into, our original and genetic families are still a strong force in our lives. We are predisposed to care about our families and find emotional support within them, even when they are not physically close by or emotionally near us.
In his book Tell Them Who I Am Elliot Liebow writes about homeless women who make an effort to work and earn paychecks. Detailing the experience of a woman named Gwen, he writes,
“Keeping a job could be as difficult as finding one. Keeping a job might mean having to suppress an awareness of one’s real-life situation. Gwen struggled against that awareness. Once, when she had to go to her salesclerk job the next day, she was trying very hard not to be discouraged and not to worry about the fact that The Refuge [the homeless shelter where she was living] would close the next week. You’ve got to have a clear head on a job, she said if your mind is on your troubles, you can’t do your job. Customers want you to pay attention to them, and that’s what your boss wants you to do, too.”
When we think about homeless men and women our first thought is often that these people need to get a job and begin earning money so that they can afford a place to rent and get off the street. When we logically express what each person needs to do we recognize that there is a chain of events taking place. First is securing a job, second is keeping that job long enough to earn a paycheck, and third is being able to afford a place to live to escape homelessness. Somehow, when we casually make this suggestion, we fail to recognize the time that may be involved in each of these steps. We fail to realize that this simple, orderly process that we expect everyone to follow likely requires working a job while not having a place to live.
Liebow’s quote shows how absurd this idea can be. Homeless individuals can hardly be expected to first obtain a job when they live in a shelter and don’t have a stable living situation. Employers will not want to hire someone without reliable transportation to work, who might be coming to work hungry, and who is likely going to be distracted on the job and face numerous troubles outside of work that make it hard for them to perform well. If they do extend a job offer to someone who is homeless, then that individual is likely to have difficult times ahead of them as they try to get their life on track, and that means they may not have the mental toughness and on the job focus to grit through rude customers and challenging work tasks.
This reality is another argument in support of housing first programs. People need to have someplace secure, where they know they can go at the end of the day, in order to put their best selves forward in work. It is truly an argument for expanded social safety net programs in general. Those who contribute to such programs often complain about the costs they bear and the lack of benefits they receive (since they are not the homeless and needy ones) but fail to see how much they could benefit if more people were more productive on the job and were ultimately more productive in society. People are expected to work in the United States, but often they are under-supported and challenged outside of work to an extent that makes both finding and keeping a job nearly impossible. More support upfront may seem wasteful and may seem undeserved, but it may be better for the system in the long run.
People who don’t live in poverty often don’t realize just how costly poverty can be. Living in poverty can be very costly in terms of money and also in terms of time, energy, and overall quality of life. While I don’t think anyone would expect the quality of life for those in poverty to be good, I think many would be surprised to see just how bad it can be, and how limiting it can be for maintaining even simple enjoyable aspects of life that are in many ways essential for being human and are necessary for living responsibly and improving one’s situation.
In his book Evicted, Matthew Desmond writes the following to show just how costly poverty can be:
“If Arleen and Vanetta didn’t have to dedicate 70 or 80 percent of their income to rent, they could keep their kids fed and clothed and off the streets. They could settle down in one neighborhood and enroll their children in one school, providing them opportunity to form long-lasting relationships with friends, role models, and teachers. They could start a savings account or buy their children toys and books, perhaps even a home computer. Their time and emotional energy they spent making rent, delaying eviction, or finding another place to live when homeless could instead be spent on things that enriched their lives: community college classes, exercise, finding a good job, maybe a good man too.”
There are a few notable points in this quote. When people hit rock bottom poverty and face eviction, they lose the ability to maintain a job, to keep their kids (or themselves) in a stable location, and run out of energy to take the additional steps they would have to take to improve their situation. Because they are evicted (or otherwise left with no option but to move) frequently, they cannot build strong connections with other people. They cannot find mentors, find additional support and encouragement from caring people, and cannot get an extra hand in paying for groceries or networking for a stable job. Things like human connection are things that all of us want and need in life and that greatly contribute to our overall life satisfaction, but which are denied to those in deep poverty who face eviction.
These deep costs of poverty work against the individuals who have the least among us. Low wages and high rents mean that there is no way to have enough money left over to be responsible and plan ahead for the costs of life. Time spent on busses, time spent searching for another place to live once evicted, and time spent commuting long distances to places to work or receive aid add up on the costs of poverty, making life even more difficult and making escape even harder. It is important to acknowledge and think about all these costs. With such low levels of life satisfaction and no conceivable way to make life better, can we ever hope that anyone will pull themselves up by their own bootstrap to improve their lives? People need support, and they need systems that reduce the costs of poverty, or they can never escape.
In many ways I think it is a good thing that our nation does so much to celebrate the individual. We mythologize our greatest national founders, we try to embody the spirit of our greatest leaders, and we look up to great entrepreneurs today who are trying to solve some of our most challenging problems. Hard work, ingenuity, personal responsibility, and talent are the things we praise the most in these individuals, focusing on how great our society can be if we all strive to be as good as these leaders. Unfortunately, this hyper-individualism focus of the United States seems to be pulling us away from engagement with our communities as we focus inward on our selves, and can have devastating effects.
US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has argued, especially with the COVID-19 Pandemic, that our nation faces a crisis of loneliness. We have fewer social groups and organizations that we engage with. We spend more time in our homes watching TV and less time participating in social and community focused groups. When we are shut away inside, this puts some individuals at risk of domestic violence, drug abuse and addiction, and mental health challenges like depression. Ultimately, as our community institutions are left to dwindle with our relentless focus on the individual, we risk increasing the trauma that individual members experience, which has a positive feedback loop on diminishing notions of community.
In the book Evicted Matthew Desmond writes, “Milwaukee renters who perceived higher levels of neighborhood trauma – believing that their neighbors had experienced incarceration, abuse, addiction, and other harrowing events – were far less likely to believe that people in their community could come together to improve their lives. This lack of faith had less to do with their neighborhood’s actual poverty and crime rates than with the level of concentrated suffering they perceived around them.” Trauma destroys community, and destroyed communities create more opportunities for trauma. The more trauma and the weaker a sense of community, the more isolated and hopeless people become.
I don’t think anyone can overcome trauma on their own. People who have experienced any trauma, from minor to extreme, need the help of stable, compassionate, and trained individuals to live healthily. However, our hyper focus on the personal responsibility of the individual fails to account for trauma. You cannot pull yourself up by the bootstraps, demonstrate extreme grit, or maintain self-control when dealing with trauma. You need community, you need other people to help create safe places where you can engage in the world around you, and you need caring people who can serve as role mentors and coaches to help you get through.
As we have allowed community to dwindle, we have removed the supports that help us overcome trauma. We have removed safe spaces for us to see that we can interact with others, come together to have fun and complete socially beneficial projects, or to provide support for one another. We focus on what we as individuals can do (even when it is being socially responsible and volunteering our time), not on what we can be as a community. This drives our isolation, leaves those who experience trauma without positive and healthy outlets, and diminishes our sense of community, further crumbling the lives and institutions of those living in poverty or trying to get through deep trauma. Celebrating the achievements and success of the individual is great, but not when it comes at the expense of our community and the institutions that help support all of us.
This idea came back to me when thinking about a quote from Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer in their book $2.00 A Day. When I think about the poor and about the way they are treated, I often fall into a similar mindset as I do when I think about the prophecy from Harry Potter or any other story about a self-fulfilling prophecy. I find myself asking if the way we treat the poor effectively tells them they are not worthy and valuable, effectively creating a self-fulfilling prophecy that they realize. When we tell someone they are not good enough, not worth the time and attention of society, do they begin to believe it, and do they give up on themselves?
“Research shows that the intrusive treatment people typically receive at the welfare office can undermine their confidence in government and erode political participation,” write Edin and Shaefer. Their book shows that research on how people in poverty are treated finds that the treatment of poor people directly influences how they understand their position in society, how they understand whether they are supported, valued, and whether they should even try to participate in democracy to improve their lives and fight for what they need to live better. Edin and Shaefer continue, “it stands to reason that this kind of treatment could also erode the very confidence that is so necessary for pulling yourself out of a $2-a-day poverty.”
This is where my ideas about self-fulfilling prophecies reconnects with poverty. Shaefer and Edin demonstrate that what we tell poor people becomes the reality they live within. We set up systems to aid the needy, but we treat them terribly when they seek to access such systems. We tell them they are not worthy, that they are failures, and that they don’t deserve the assistance legally provided. As a result, poor people believe they are not meant to participate in society, they may truly believe they are not good enough to improve their situation, and they may give up and accept that they are not deserving of a better life. The way we treat the poor effectively creates a prophecy that they live out, preventing them from meaningfully participating in our democracy, and limiting their chances of doing the things necessary to be seen as worthy of more help and assistance to escape deep poverty.
Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) was the welfare system in the United States from the 1930’s to 1997 when it was eventually replaced with a new system for welfare. In the book $2.00 A Day authors Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer write about the history and legacy of AFDC to explore how America ended up in a place where so many people in our country still live in a poverty that many don’t believe could exist in the richest nation on earth.
One of the challenges, the authors note, about welfare programs in the United States is that most people have serious misperceptions about how the programs operate and who is being served by the programs. These misperceptions are worsened by our country’s troubled racial history, and narratives about welfare beneficiaries in some instances are more influential in the design and implementation of welfare programs than real facts.
Edin and Shaefer demonstrate that this was true of Ronald Reagan who focused on AFDC and presented a racialized stereotype of welfare beneficiaries. Reagan popularized the narrative of the welfare queen which the authors describe by writing, “she was black, decked out in furs, and riving her Cadillac to the welfare office to pick up her check.” This narrative played on racial stereotypes, fears, and the dehumanization of black and poor people.
Edin and Shaefer continue, “None of these stereotypes even came close to reflecting reality, particularly in regard to race. It was true that as of the late 1960’s and beyond, a disproportionate percentage of blacks participated in AFDC. But there was never a point at which blacks accounted for a majority of recipients. The typical AFDC recipient, even in Reagan’s day, was white.”
The racialized stereotypes were used to justify changes to the welfare system, less generous benefits, and to demonstrate the idea that aid to the needy actually harms them rather than helps them. A narrative that was based more on anecdote and fear than reality shaped public opinion, perception, and policy. Misperceptions about AFDC meant that policymakers and their constituents were focused more on the narrative of welfare and less on the actual needs, systems, structures, and institutions of those living in poverty and ways to help them improve their lives.
“Although there is little evidence to support such a claim, welfare is widely believed to engender dependency,” write Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer in $2.00 A Day. People hate welfare and distrust welfare recipients. Part of the reason why is because compelling narratives have been developed and routinely deployed to argue that welfare creates dependence, that it weakens the person receiving aid, and creates a cycle where those who are poor lose skills and work ethic, becoming more dependent on a system of support.
“Even President Franklin D. Roosevelt claimed that welfare is a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit,” write the authors. Rather than viewing welfare as a system that ensures everyone is able to meet their basic needs or as a system that provides a stable foundation for everyone to live a healthy life, welfare is viewed as a system that ruins the lives of those who receive it by draining their motivation to anything productive with their life. In the United States, a country founded on Protestant ideals where hard work is rewarded with divine riches, the idea of welfare runs against the concepts that have fueled capitalism and our independent spirit.
But the narratives around welfare are often little more than narratives. When it comes to government aid and social support, people are more interested in stories than statistics. A single anecdote about a greedy individual is more powerful than research on economic mobility, the long history of racism in the United States, or randomized controlled trials and natural experiments which show the benefits of social support systems. Research shows that economic mobility is not as simple as hard work and pulling oneself up by bootstraps. The long history of racism in America shows how black ghettos were the result of deliberate racist policies designed to hinder the economic and social advancement of black people. And natural experiments from Oregon regarding Medicaid lotteries show that individuals who receive Medicaid experience less stress and are more willing to engage economically when they are not worried about providing for their healthcare. “Sometimes evidence, however,” write Edin and Shaefer, “doesn’t stand a chance against a compelling narrative.”
When it comes to social support, we want to feel as though we are generous and we want to use charity to signal our wealth and success. Welfare provided through the government does not help us achieve these ends. Additionally, in our own narratives we like to tell ourselves that we are hard working, that we overcame obstacles, and that we are making worthwhile sacrifices for the good our families and communities. Providing welfare through the government to anyone who is below an economic threshold accepts that failure is not due to personal work ethic, challenging the idea that our success is purely a result of how hard we work. It acknowledges that racism has played into the economic outcomes (positive and negative) that we see today, it acknowledges that having a stable footing helps people get ahead, diminishing our personal narratives of overcoming obstacles. The narratives around our own success and the failures of others drive our views and opinions of welfare much more than the evidence of how welfare actually works and impacts the lives of those around us. This is true for the every day citizen on the street and many of the presidents and political leaders throughout our country’s history. These narratives also prevent us today from truly moving forward in a way that supports those who are the poorest among us.
The General Social Survey (GSS) is a long running survey of Americans that considers numerous factors and capture’s the country’s general thoughts, feelings, demographics, and experiences regarding a range of issues. Sometimes the GSS is useful in distilling the American will, but sometimes it reveals how confused American’s are and the extent to which we don’t know what we want.
Surveying the public can be notoriously tricky and misleading. When individuals are surveyed about specific clauses of the Affordable Care Act (ACA/Obamacare) – for example the requirement that insurances allow young adults to remain covered by their parent’s health insurance until age 26 – people are highly supportive of the policies. However, if you survey Americans about the ACA and refer to it or any of its policies as Obamacare, then support drops substantially. What people want competes with political identities, and in the end people express a seemingly confused set of political preferences and desires.
The same happens with social support and welfare, as demonstrated by Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer in their book $2.00 A Day. The authors write:
“The largest, most representative survey of American attitudes, the General Social Survey, has consistently shown that between 60 and 70 percent of the American public believes that the government is spending too little on assistance for the poor. However, if Americans are asked about programs labeled welfare in particular, their support for assistance drops considerably.”
What the survey shows us is that people don’t understand poverty well, don’t understand social support programs, and don’t understand the role of the government in assisting the poor. The term welfare has been colored to represent lazy people who are taking advantage of the system. People don’t like welfare, even though they like the idea of being charitable and helping those in need. In America, the idea of social support is that it helps someone get back on their feet to provide for themselves, whereas welfare is seen as a system of dependence that devalues the individual receiving the aid and enables laziness and degeneracy.
This idea is supported by the primary way that many American’s prefer social support and charitable actions to be handled – through religious organizations. In my eyes, religious charity seems to have a quid pro quo element, where the individual receiving support is implicitly expected to attend the church or be more deferential to those who give, and donors also expect some sort of Divine reward. There seems to be more acceptance of strings placed on donations through churches, with the idea that it will be support provided based on the standards set by the church community. This can be a way to screen out individuals who use drugs, atheists, and those who are unwilling or unable to receive counseling that aligns with the worldviews of the donors. Welfare, on the other hand, is simply support from a government bureaucracy with seemingly little to push the recipient to change their lives to the standards of the donor.
This seems to me to be why people dislike welfare but support the idea of providing more social support. People don’t really know what they want with social support, but they know they don’t want to see homeless people around and want to look charitable. The result is a distrust of welfare, but a feeling that they and others (possibly through government but possibly through other avenues) should be doing more to provide social support to those in need, especially if that support can shape the needy to fit with the ideals of the person donating money or providing taxes to support the poor.