Poverty and homelessness are choices.
Before you close your browser window, upset that I am blaming impoverished and unhoused persons for poor choices that led to their predicament, hear me out.
Poverty and homelessness are choices society makes, that you and I make, each and every day.
By convincing ourselves that we, the “haves,” are where we are because of hard work and ingenuity – the “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” ideology that could be called the United States’ favorite myth – we often conclude that those not in our position, the “have nots,” are where they are because of a lack of industriousness or resourcefulness.
Of course, poor choices play a role in creating or perpetuating need in some instances.
Yet, statements along those lines are mostly a means by which we – the comfortable, financially secure and adequately housed – dismiss the reality that poverty and homelessness more often result from factors and forces outside an individual’s control and that society’s systems and structures make it very difficult for people (no matter how hard they work) to exit poverty levels and homelessness.
I recently read “Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police and Punish the Poor” by Virginia Eubanks.
It is an eye-opening, and heart-rending, read about the impact of shifting to algorithm-based approaches to social service provision (such as coordinated entry, whereby data is used to try and match up the unhoused with appropriate housing).
These data-driven programs and initiatives are usually well-intentioned and seem, on the surface, to be an improved and more efficient means to address need.
Yet, they have resulted in a “digital poorhouse,” Eubanks asserts, that has caused as much, and probably more, harm than good.
“If homelessness is inevitable – like a disease or a natural disaster – then it is perfectly reasonable to use triage-oriented solutions that prioritize unhoused people for a chance at limited housing resources,” she writes in one chapter. “But if homelessness is a human tragedy created by policy decisions and professional middle-class apathy, coordinated entry allows us to distance ourselves from the human impacts of our choice to not act decisively.”
Eubanks adds, “As a system of moral valuation, coordinated entry is a machine for producing rationalization, for helping us convince ourselves that only the most deserving people are getting help. Those judged ‘too risky’ are code for criminalization. Those who fall through the cracks face prisons, institutions or death.”
Her book brought to mind a pointed comment from Philip Alston, United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, following a U.S. visit in late 2017.
“There is no magic recipe for eliminating extreme poverty, and each level of government must make its own good faith decisions,” Alston stated. “But at the end of the day, particularly in a rich country like the U.S.A., the persistence of extreme poverty is a political choice made by those in power. With political will, it could readily be eliminated.”
Poverty and homelessness in the U.S. are choices we, as a collective society, make each and every day by believing that these realities are inevitable, that poverty and homelessness are largely the result of poor choices, and that help should be offered only to “the most deserving.”
President Trump’s April 10 executive order, while praiseworthy for its goal of reducing U.S. poverty, further ingrains false, negative stereotypes about people in poverty.
For example, it calls for “strengthening existing work requirements” when data shows most receiving assistance already work.
The executive order also promotes the myth of “limited resources” for safety net programs, which are limited only because political choices are made to allocate them elsewhere, such as in tax cuts, military spending, border walls and so forth.
There is a time and a place to talk about personal responsibility and the choices that contribute to poverty and homelessness.
But too often this is a smokescreen to deflect and derail the uncomfortable reality to which Eubanks, Alston and, yes, Jesus (continuing the tradition of the Hebrew prophets) points.
Namely, that resources exist to effectively end poverty and homelessness, but that we, myself very much included, are so caught up in our pursuit of happiness that we lack the political, social, economic and religious will to act.
We’d prefer to see them as inevitable, perpetual realities resulting from personal choices and limited resources because that doesn’t cost us anything, doesn’t demand anything of us.
We must repent of such false and destructive thinking and embrace Jesus’ abiding sense of solidarity with those in need (see Matthew 25).
“Other things being equal, a solidaristic religious experience is more distinctly Christian than an individualistic religious experience,” observed Baptist social reformer Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918). “The more we approach pure Christianity, the more will the Christian signify a [person] who loves [humanity] with a religious passion and excludes none.”
The extent to which Christians are faithfully following Jesus is revealed by whether or not we are burdened enough to shake off our apathy toward the millions of neighbors who live in poverty and hundreds of thousands who are unhoused and to actively work to bring an end to these persistent, not inevitable, realities.
To quote Rauschenbusch once more, “A Christian regeneration must have an outlook toward humanity and result in a higher social consciousness. … The feeling which Jesus had when he said, ‘I am the hungry, the naked, the lonely,’ will be the emotional consciousness of all holy [people] in the coming days. The sense of solidarity is one of the distinctive marks of the true followers of Jesus.”
Let it be so.