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We Could End Homelessness Right Now, If Only Capitalism Didn’t Get in the Way

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Part of the Series

Though houseless folks number more than half-a-million in the United States, this number only begins to capture the gravity of our situation. What was already widely considered a “nationwide housing crisis” years ago has worsened amid the “corona crash.” At the time of writing, between 30 and 40 million people in the United States are at risk of eviction and homelessness as the federal eviction moratorium inches toward expiration on March 31, 2021.

While our lives are largely confined indoors, it is important to look outside to see why homelessness remains such a persistent problem in the world’s wealthiest country. Ours is a walled world of borders, barricades, cages and concrete that keep the poor apart from “us.” They are disappeared, expunged from out sight. Aggressive policing of working-class, Black and Brown communities enforces the boundaries where walls fail. Even the lowly park bench has a part to play. Hostile architecture like slanted or segmented benches, awning gaps, spikes and nighttime sprinkler systems keep our homeless neighbors exhausted and on the run.

This architecture has also gone digital. Some cities have begun to supplant expensive social workers with databases, algorithms and risk models to dole out services, according to political scientist Virginia Eubanks, and, in the process, create what she calls a “digital poorhouse.” In this new iteration of the 17th-century creation, the derelict vanish behind a blinking computer screen: a nonevent. Digitizing the poorhouse hasn’t lowered costs as it promised to, however. Instead, anti-welfare policies in the United States have slashed caseloads to block access to entitlements. In their place, city and government officials have advocated for individual charity and cottage industry to caulk the cracks left behind as social services crumble and entitlements dry up.

Yet these efforts and city and federal programming always seem to come up short. In the very first paragraph of Disciplining the Poor: Neoliberal Paternalism and the Persistent Power of Race, scholars Joe Soss, Richard C. Fording and Sanford Schram summarize why:

In practice, social programs are rarely designed or evaluated as if the elimination of poverty were an attainable goal. Programs for the poor are used mainly to temper the hardships of poverty and ensure that they do not become disruptive for the broader society. They support the impoverished in ways designed to make poor communities more manageable and to shepherd the poor into the lower reaches of societal institutions.

In abandoning the goal of ending poverty, inequality sediments. It is naturalized as a permanent feature of our social landscape.

Other inequalities follow suit. In the case of the “housing crisis,” it’s not just people who are unhoused. The threat of homelessness also looms over those who are housing insecure. And they are legion. In 2006, historian Mike Davis counted about 200,000 slums around the world, which were then home to 1 billion people, a number that has grown to an estimated 1.6 billion since. It bears repeating: Today, 1 in 8 people around the world lives in a slum. While a certain level of poverty has been a fixture in capitalist societies for centuries — in the United States, for instance, the poorhouse predates “the Constitution by 125 years” — our “planet of slums” is actually a recent phenomenon, according to Davis. Forged on the anvil of neoliberal economics, most of the world’s slums have sprung up since the 1980s, the decade when elites spearheaded a reengineering of the world around transnational capitalism. The International Monetary Fund and World Bank imposed on the Global South “structural adjustment programs” that plundered state coffers and sold off vast tracts of land and resources to unnamed ghosts. They ordered governments to take hatchets to social safety nets and shrink their national tax bases to invite foreign investment. Right-wing politicians then used the resultant budget shortfalls as an alibi to cut social services. Unemployment, mass impoverishment and mass suffering predictably skyrocketed. When economic crisis set in, the financial institutions responsible for the mess prescribed austerity: more cuts, more slashes, more scorched earth. The cycle ran anew.

In the meantime, the weight of looted gold grew heavier in the hands of global elites, who submerged it deep in Swiss banks and tropical tax........

© Truthout

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