Tuesday, July 17, 2007

rowing the boat

Some friends and I were talking today about the human services profession and whether or not our interventions matter. We all agreed that they matter on the individual level, helping that one person with their crisis alleviates that one person's suffering. But what about global suffering? Or influencing the people that are driving it?

J thinks it's a brilliant strategy. Get all of us bleeding hearters together and promise we can MAKE A DIFFERENCE. And then we go and spend our entire lives bailing out the ocean with a thimble and wonder why we are frustrated. We work and work and work and everyone is still homeless. For every one person housed another two walk in the door. So we work harder and more people still walk in the door. And one day we pull our head out of our asses and wonder what has happened, why NO DIFFERENCE HAS BEEN MADE.

This isn't me feeling sorry for myself. I think this sort of work is important on a human level, but it does give The Policy Smucks an excuse. As long as they keep allocating funding to treat the problem then we never have to actually solve the problem.

I often wonder what it would really cost to provide affordable housing to 90% of the homeless people in our country and I wonder if it would indeed be cheaper than supporting the thousands of service agencies that provide an array of services needed to treat homelessness from shelter to short term housing to food to free clinics to detox facilities to counseling agencies to vocational centers. Sure, some of those places would still need to exist, a house isn't a magic pill that makes all other issues disappear. But there have been studies on the costs of homelessness and about the high costs/utilization of these support services that might not need to exist should people have more stability.

So then I wonder what is in it for them. What would be the incentive to enable rather than solve. There can't be much of a sense of accomplishment, at least not akin to the one they (note how I pretend to think for them) should feel should homelessness cease to exist. Or maybe they just don't care. So it begs the question: what does keeping people homeless do for our country? What benefits exist by choosing to allow this to continue? Is it simply economic, that providing adequate resources isn't financially viable? (but don't tell me we couldn't pony up because bringing all that freedom to Iraq could have solved a host of domestic crises if that 12 billion a month price tag is accurate). And what about all the money we throw at managing the crisis rather than solving it?

I just can't fathom it. So instead I go back to a common notion that we need to keep people sick and tired and scared in order to have some measure of control over them. And if we control them they will not revolt or vote or change the system. But I acknowledge that I lead so far to the left that I see things diagonally so I welcome your thoughts on the matter. Because if we can get to the root of it it might help us learn where to start.


flutter said...

I wish I knew the solid answer. All I can say is that I am glad you are there, doing what you do. If I were in a bad way, I would want someone with your heart, helping me....

bubandpie said...

I can imagine a certain kind of social Darwinist thinking that homelessness functions as a usefully visible reminder of the importance of a good Protestant work ethic - a nice cautionary tale about the importance of staying on the treadmill and running for our lives.

Kevin said...

I think it is the same reason why CEO salaries have increased to over 350 times the average worker's salary in recent years. Remember our grandparents and their ability to work one job to make ends meet? Not any more.

It is first and foremost greed. But, it is also the fact that an impoverished group of folks have little time to do anything else but merely survive. Who can blame folks who get a few minutes off a year and choose to spend it with their families or perhaps in some mind numbing activity?

The state of this country indeed makes me very sad.

For example, we are about to have a baby and we have no paternity leave. The Family Medical Leave Act only says that a company has to give you six weeks or so off when you have a baby. They don't have to pay you. And, most don't. So, who can afford to take that much time off, especially with a baby just arrived?

Little Monkies said...

I'm with BubandPie...I think that we have an attitude about whether or not people "deserve" things in this country. Personally, I have inherited money from family members...did I "deserve" that by benefit of my birth into this family? But some other family members will go long and hard about not giving handouts, not supporting habits, not giving people something they haven't worked for...mmmmmm, and that's different from inheritance? I'm thankful for what I've received, but I also see the glaring inequity that it produces.

But this attitude is present in our welfare policies, we see it in our handling of education, we see it in the way we look at the homeless. Ever notice how people get real active when it's something that affects their life (child needing special ed, etc)? You don't see many formerly homeless folks in the senate or in the white house...

Great post, thanks for cranking up my thinking this morning...

Julie Pippert said...

I don't hear whining (or whatever you called it).

I hear a good point. A truth.

I think your frustration serves a great purpose.

Here's my thoughts (note I don't say answer...haven't got one):

Why is it that the efforts may win battles but lose the war?

The only possible response is that in some way, we're doing it wrong if the goal is to win the war.

But people don't like to say that.

That implies some flaw in our system, in us.

And God forbid you imply the way the US approaches something is flawed, or a failure.

That might lead to other questions that imply someplace else that's different has a better approach, such as

How do other countries have a more manageable problem? What is different there?

Therefore, we have to transition blame to the individual and thus apply fixes to the individual.

Creating a vicious cycle in a way.

And that's my circular response.

I think Little Monkies is on to something, and so is J, and so are you and your colleagues.

Good luck. And thanks.

Bob said...

I have a really hard time seeing the way the homeless are treated as a conspiracy to keep the status quo. I don't give the policy schmucks that much machiavellian cunning. they just aren't that smart.

the root of the problem is that this country runs entirely on the economic model of a market economy. everything is judged on its monetary value or its ability to generate money. a person's worth is measured in those terms. we have welfare only because of the hard efforts of those who believe in human dignity AND because enough of the policy schmucks think it is cheaper to support them than to clean up the mess if they don't.

Jenn said...

I'm a subscriber to the "Pay it Forward" philosophy.

An act of kindness, encouragement, etc, no matter how small, can affect the world in profound ways that you may never know about.

I know it's a rose colored glasses way of looking at things when you're standing in the shadows and don't need them right now, but even just your writing has had such impacts on people--who knows what they've done with it?

You are making a difference.

crazymumma said...

You are making a difference Jen. Never forget that.

But I do get what you are saying about them keeping some of the population scared sick and hungry. Power, control, conspiracy. An army of discontents and angered people willing to do anything fight anyone to get a roof and some food?

Would a government be that evil. um, ya.

Kyla said...

I can only think it is a lack of compassion in the ones who are calling the shots. They feel compelled to do SOMETHING, lest they be seen as cold hearted, but they don't actually care enough to try and fix anything. Or that the people holding the reins subscribe to the "They got themselves into this, they can get themselves out." philosophy that is so pervasive in our society. It is sad...but I think it is a lack of caring for our fellow man at the root.

Susanne said...

I'm with Bob on this. Things like homelessness tend to get worse here in Germany too because we increasingly embrace the "America knows best" way of thinking.

And like Bub said, there might be the thought of people deserving their fate.

I think it is a question of values too. And of telling which causes are worthy and which not.

As for the economy I think that nobody really knows how that work. So politicians always go about guessing the causes for things that they deem undesirable and then they try to eliminate them. But since nobody really knows what influences what and since there are so many individuals involved in all this...

Tabba said...

I think I'm with Bub and Pie on this....but let me chew on this....

Deezee said...

I think all of this is related to our country's attachment to cure over prevention. That shows up across the board from medicine to education to international relations. Once again, I think it returns to philosophy, and changing a country's mindset is a mighty big task.

jen said...

Terrific comments!

Bub - Social Darwinism. Interesting.
Kevin - I know. When we had M J could only take off a few weeks before his vacation/sick time ran out. But you know, there is some sort of subsidy that goes along w/ FMLA for the father. It's about 60 percent of earnings, isn't it?

LM - I KNOW! it's one of the things we lament. other ailments cross class borders. once you recover you give back or your family gives back. not as much potential for huge financial recovery in homelessness.

Bob - I agree with your points but also wonder if you read Confessions of an Economic Hit Man? See, I DO think there is a large benefit to others for keeping folks in their place.

Kyla - agreed. but i wonder if the sum total we spend on it would equate just solving it over the long haul. years and years of throwaway funding to keep people in this cycle rather than ending it.

Did you know there is not one city in the US where minimum wage can allow you to afford a market rate apartment (at the notion of paying 30% for your housing costs, which is the acceptable percentage.

Su - definitely. but how are we defining what's worthy if only a few of us vote b/c the rest are marginalized (and yes, they should take responsibility anyways but it's proven they don't or can't)

NotSoSage said...

I've long felt that the only explanation is the one that B&P gave. I can't find any other explanation that fits. As you said, greed doesn't fit because it actually is more cost-effective to set people up with affordable housing and other services than to keep with the status quo.

I am so grateful for what you're doing, but I can understand that the questions must be endless.

Mad Hatter said...

Your point at the end of this post echoes neatly the point made by the British labour MP in Sicko (which I saw on the weekend) and I think there is truth to it whether that truth be Macheavellian or simply de facto.

I also agree with B&P's point about social Darwinism and bob's point about the market economy. I would also add that in the West (particularly the US) nation states have been founded on the ethos of self-reliance. All that 18th and 19th C philosophy about self-reliance and the tabula rasa dove-tailed neatly with the emergence of republicanism. The unfortunate thing is that self-reliance can only operate if all parties are equal by birth, by opportunity, and by experience. None of this is true in the human world. Those of us who see the truth in that and want to address these problems are drowned out by the grand myths of self-reliance and the political leverage that keeps the grand myths propped up.

Oh and add to all that the fact that depending on political stripes, different people see vastly different solutions to the same problem. As a social democrat I believe that we need good government and a responsible tax structure to solve these problems. Libertarians and others might wish as fervently to solve these problems but they would not wish to invest the state with the authority to take action. Conservatives might see the solution coming from non-government agencies: the Church, the private sector. As long as none of us agree on a best possible solution, the problems can only compound and the bandaids will never heal the gaping wounds.

jen said...

Mad, YES! and as long as we don't invest that energy into agreeing, we can all (those who can afford to) sit back and idly point fingers across the table while children sleep in the streets.

Magpie said...

I have a dim recollection that I read once about a guy who was a perennial in some city (SF?) hospital, so perennial that they finally decided that the cheaper solution was to just get him an apartment. You could well be right that it would be cheaper to plow the money into housing instead of support, but there are always going to be people who fall out of the net and will need support one way or another.

liv said...

I'm just sitting here breathless with how hard you're working. And thinking. And working. I'm so happy to know you're out there.

slouching mom said...

I agree with deezee, it's not unlike the approach to medicine we take in the US. So much money goes into post-facto care, and so little into preventative medicine, even though investing in preventative medicine would be far cheaper in the long run...

B and P's points are thought-provoking, though I tend to agree with the commenter who wrote that those in charge may not be smart enough to have such a manipulative agenda.

thailandchani said...

I intentionally haven't read any of the other comments so I won't be influenced.

I believe an underclass is necessary for capitalism to survive. There can be no economically equality under that social system because it would inevitably cause the system to disintegrate.

That translates into cultural values that support the existence of an underclass.

Service agencies exist because they fit into the concept of noblesse oblige.

I honestly don't believe this will change unless the social system changes.

I am a socialist.. not in the western tradition, but the eastern tradition.

Simply, we have an obligation in community to see to the dignity of everyone. It's not a choice and it's not noblesse oblige. It's a responsibility.

It's that simple... really.

Now I can read the other comments. :)



Mad Hatter said...

But Jen, I don't think we can agree on the solutions--at least not realistically. There are so many valid, arguable schools of thought on how to solve these problems. We could no sooner convert every caring person to a single school of social thought than we could convert every person to a common religion. We need to move forward with a multi-facetted approach each of us doing the most we can according to our own belief systems. The systemic problems are huge and are not about to go away. What can be addressed though is the problem of individual agency. We can each do more and we each need to do more. We need to make people believe that and live that. And that, my dear, is what makes your blogs one of the best on the block: because you actually make people see the problems for what they are AND you make your reraders believe in their own sense of agency.

Mad Hatter said...

typos much? sorry.

QT said...

So many good comments that I agree with already.

Corporations are part of our communities and social structure via the model of capitalism.

They should have to contribute, even if it is just a small percentage. My company does, but there are many, many others that don't.

Cristi said...

Great analogy... "bailing out the ocean with a thimble."

Individual belief systems. Unfortunately, not everyone has dignity.

Coorporate contributions. Yeah right, only if there is a huge tax break.

Blog Antagonist said...

I don't have an answer for you, and so many others that have commented here have made such salient and eloquent points that I don't feel I can really add anything.


You HAVE made a difference. Make no mistake about that. And I'm damn glad there are people like you out there giving a damn.

Hel said...

I don't know about the big picture but I was the only person who my social worker managed to get of drugs.

She retired shortly after I left rehab believing her work was meaningless.

But it wasn't to me.

jen said...

Chani - you and i share similiar views on this.

Mad - agreed. we can't all agree. but that's the job of the electeds, to weigh all schools of thought and come up with a strategic plan to address them that isn't self serving or pandering to big business.

B/A, Hel, I know. I am not discounting the individual. but it will always be the individual if we aren't able to define the goal we'd like for our communities and work towards it, and as Neen said, with corporate help as well as government leadership.

Am loving this discussion.

Kevin said...


You make a real difference every day in people's lives and that is key. We have to continue to make these differences and have impacts. Every action that we take has an impact. And, at the same time, we need to "fight big picture." We need to work for real change to the system that creates a need for a person with a job like yours. It is a dual struggle every day of our lives.

And, I think that the only way to taste victory is not to be discouraged. For, when you are gone, your actions will be remembered. You will live on through the work that you do.

jen said...

One more thing: how did homelessness occur? because in the US, it didn't become a widespread problem till after vietnam (for adults) and in the late 70s (for families) Trickle down economics? Closing mental health facilities? (God, I love Reagan) Was there no evaluation at that time of the repercussions on the poor? Did we really not know this would happen, if we keep minimum wage at a horrible rate while watching housing prices soar while decreasing government responsibility for those who struggle?

it's hard to believe this wasn't a projected outcome of those decisions and that is where i question intent.

jen said...

and the LACK of intent now, especially seeing as the same guys have been running the show (with 8 years off) since.

Kevin, thank you.

painted maypole said...

I wish we did know the answers to this, but I imagine it is long and hugely complicated. But I agree that there is an advantage to having the poor there, for those in charge, whether they schemed to create the problem or not. What would be their motivation to fix it, if they benefit from it now? Like my husband says "there's no money in curing cancer, only in treating it"

Kevin said...


I know it is a bit off topic on this great thread of comments, but just FYI the Family Medical Leave Act only requires employers to grant 12 weeks of unpaid leave.

Just shows how much our government really cares about family values.

I laugh when I hear a politico say something about "family values." Because it is usually in reference to only accepting heterosexual lifestyles or not letting your kids see a boob. It is seldom about a living wage, health care, paid family leave, vacation, etc.

Very sad.

jen said...

Kev, maybe it's different in CA...in fact i think it is, because J got paid for his FMLA. but it still wasn't enough to take the entire time. but to not get any other than the promise of a job three months later sucks ass.

Kevin said...

There are many benefits to Cali. I just wish that we could have handled the cost of living.

kristen said...

We are a band-aid society - quick fixes to patch together a semblance of order and care. It happened in New Orleans and supposedly there was money to rebuild and take care of the residents, but very little has happened there so it's not surprising that the homeless are completely bi-passed.

I think it helps some sort of financial infrastructure to keep the homeless where they are. I don't know much about this area of government but it does seem as though the homeless are exactly where the government wants them. And that's really sad.

That said, I do believe you are making a difference, I think you would be able to do nothing less.

Ok now I'll go read the other comments.

Wayfarer Scientista said...

This is not the appropriate post to put this and I have hardly had the time to catch up and read this yet but I did want to say THANK YOU for your ecouraging note on my blog. I'm glad I de-lurked - I've enjoyed your blog for some time now and you are one of the reasons I've started one. Thank you for your comment and for you blog and for your thoughts. Next time I'll comment on the content!

nomotherearth said...

So many people have such complex answers that I hesitate to add mine..

Can it be as simple that people want to help, but feel that if they give too much, then they will end up no better off than the homeless person? If you take that very basic, human reaction, and compound it with too many people attacking the problem too many ways - no cohesive effort - and we end up feeling like we truly can't make a difference. Without that essential hope, people give up even trying.

I have a hard time believing that there are people out there who truly want to keep other people poor and downtrodden. I'm naive that way.

Mad Hatter said...

Sweetheart, you sure know how to get 'em talkin'. I've been coming back all day for more. Lovin' you muchly right now.

urban-urchin said...

I agree with B&P and Bob, I also think that you brought up an excellent point on Regan's revolving door policy in the 80's for mental health facilities.

And Kevin brought up another valid point- the CEO salary increase pushing the divide b/w the haves and have nots even wider. I sit and look at my life- two working parents with better paying jobs than most and wring my hands when I realize we are f**ked. How can we retire? How can we pay for college for our children?

jen said...

NoMother - I know. But you know, I truly think there are.

UU - Yep. It's terrifying, isn't it.

carrie said...

Again, giving me something to think about - all I know is that if people stopped trying, there'd be thimbles more water than there is now (metaphorically speaking).


Christine said...

i believe that so much of it is ignorance, fear, and greed. so many simply say--'it's their fault, don't bother me with it."

thanks for fighting the good fight, jen.

mitzh said...

As long as there is one heart as good as yours we are all looking at a better tomorrow.

ewe are here said...

I don't know what the answers are to this one. I have met quite a few people over the years who have 'burned out' working in the human services area, though, because it does seem to be a never-ending problem.

I think a large chunk of society feels bad about homelessness and wants to help, but doesn't know how to go about it. But there's also a large chunk of society that thinks 'those people' have brought it upon themselves and need to suck it up and find a job. Those in the latter group really don't 'get' the problems that exist in the homelessess camp, and most never will unless they somehow find themselves teetering on the economic edge themselves.

jen said...

Ewe, so true. That whole blaming the victim thing has been a terrific excuse.

Andrea said...

If there weren't true, abject, total poverty, our economic system would never work.

CEOs and other upper-class jobs and incomes are the carrots. The homeless are the sticks. They keep us on the treadmill, as B&P said. It's what gets us to sacrifice our time and our values and our families to produce things and services of no value to anyone. If there were no total, complete poverty to fear, most of us would be less likely to participate in this system. That's my theory.

If there weren't visible, terrifying reminders of how bad poverty can be, begging for change at the street corner every day, would people be willing to sacrifice as much as they do to avoid it?

jen said...

Andrea: good point. goes back to my "Fear, The New Truth" idea.

Carrie said...

I share your concern about those homeless people. It's a sad reality that the rich are getting richer which the poor and going no where.

Danni said...

Glad to hear your point about the homeless. I also have the same thought about the insufficient funding. It's unusual that they found some way to fund other projects while the homeless are still suffering.