July 31, 2008

The Politics of Entitlement

Instead of emphasizing the vulnerabilities of the homeless as the rationale for caretaking policies, political advocates for the homeless (although they acknowledged the vulnerability of the homeless) trace the roots of this privation down institutional rather than behavioral paths. They blame government welfare or housing subsidy cutbacks for pushing poor people into the streets. They tend to identify the homeless as constituents as opposed to clients, thus justifying political organizing for the homeless on the ground of social justice for fellow citizens rather than the individual need of clients. However, since the homeless can exert little collective political pressure on their own, the advocates have ended up utilizing the images of vulnerability to create public support for the care of the homeless. …

… In debates about social rights the work ethic reasserts itself with a vengeance. The belief that normal citizens deserve by right only those social benefits they have earned remains a formidable ideological obstacle to the reform efforts of the advocates. As a result, the benefits and virtue of spreading responsibility for the homeless through an expanded welfare state stirs up considerable disagreement – not just between conservatives and liberals but, even more important, among liberals themselves.

… The public seems willing to help the visibly dependent and vulnerable, but it stops short of supporting policies that would subsidize housing for the poor. Ironically, the result has meant increased funding for emergency and transitional shelters, whose residents are likely to find it increasingly difficult to leave. Increasing shelter populations are in turn justifying increased expenditures for additional caretakers and services, producing a new type of public, nonprofit welfare bureaucracy.

Attempts to reverse this situation have also floundered, in part, because of homeless people’s lack of political muscle. Efforts to organize this population have proven largely ineffective because of the profound uncertainties the homeless face every day.
From a section “The Politics of Entitlement” in the book New Homeless and Old by Hoch and Slayton.

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