The city of Santa Rosa, just north of San Francisco, has declared a “homeless emergency.” This entails “allowing” the homeless to live in their cars year-round instead of only in winter and inclement weather. There also will be some additional services for homeless people. San Francisco itself decided to address this growing problem by adding to the November ballot a proposal to restore arts funding for the homeless. If you are going to live in your car, apparently, you should at least be able to hang some macramé from the rear-view mirror.
The rise in homelessness is hardly limited to the ultra-expensive streets of the Bay Area. Nor is it new, but its extent is deplorable. In 2012, Paul Kengor reported that “According to data from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), there is at least twice the number of homeless today than at a comparable point in [Ronald] Reagan’s first term. HUD estimated that there were 250,000-350,000 homeless on a typical night at the end of 1983.… This compares with an estimated 636,000 homeless at the end of 2011, the figures heading into the fourth year of Obama’s presidency.” And the figures have continued to rise, though they are little noticed by the mainstream media.
In Seattle, where I recently spent a couple of weeks visiting family, one can see veritable tent cities sprouting up under the freeways. Here at least some of the problem stems from local imposition of a $15 per hour minimum wage. The connection is unsurprising to anyone who is not economically illiterate. When the government imposes a significant increase in wages on employers, employers respond by decreasing the number of hours allocated to wage-earners. Assuming the business does not close up shop completely (as many do) hours worked drop, and the drop rarely is spread evenly, usually spelling an increase in unemployment. Thus, to take an example from my recent experience in Seattle, in hotels, restaurants, and other businesses where entry-level jobs once abounded, those who still hold such jobs are severely overworked because their coworkers are gone, tourists and business travelers wait impatiently for service, and would-be workers go without hours, or altogether without jobs.
The minimum wage fiasco is merely the latest hole being punched into the ship of our economy by progressives. Housing policy has played a big role in urban homelessness. Housing codes have been drafted to meet the aesthetic demands of the upper classes, but hardly fit the budgets of the poor. More generally, high taxes and overregulation have been rampant over the last seven years. As Anthony Kim of the Heritage Foundation reports, “According to the 2016 Index of Economic Freedom… With losses of economic freedom in eight of the past nine years, the U.S. has tied its worst score ever, wiping out a decade of progress.… The U.S. has fallen from the sixth-freest economy in the world, when President Barack Obama took office, to eleventh place in 2016.”
Despite what progressives seem to think, higher taxes and increased regulation do not magically create arts programs and a wealth of easy benefits. They put some employers out of business, cause others to forego expansion, and move yet others (including an awful lot of “good progressives” in the tech sector) to outsource jobs. They also lower productivity, meaning that workers produce less than they otherwise would, slowing down economic growth and job creation.
We have known all this for decades, and it has not stopped the progressive march toward social democracy. Why do progressives continue to insist on policies that hurt the poor? There are a number of explanations, many of them reflecting quite poorly on progressives. But one important element of the problem is the demand for “a living wage for everyone.” This abstract demand for “social justice” shares with most economic demands from the left a willful ignorance of the complexities of economic life. Most directly, it ignores the nature of work-for-money as a lifetime activity.
It would, in fact, be nice if everyone who wanted to could make a “living wage.” The gaps in income between what some people, especially heads of households, can make and what they need to provide a decent way of life for themselves and their families is a very bad, often tragic, thing. But the attempt to eliminate this tragedy with a wave of the regulatory wand is worse than feckless, for it undermines the only real means by which people can climb far enough up the economic ladder over time to achieve financial well-being and security. It eliminates entry-level jobs for people entering or re-entering the workforce, making even unskilled labor the province only of those with connections and tenure. Why, then, insist on it? As a means of eliminating the need for virtue.
Traditionally, local communities, and especially religious charities, worked to fill in the gaps of human need left by low wages and unemployment. This often was not enough, especially when those who controlled much of the economy were important political figures who enjoyed the protection of the government. It also “privileged” virtue in that it called upon some to give, and others to work to be worthy of receiving. The entire notion of the “deserving” poor has been so buried in Marxist hate speech that today it can only be referenced in scare quotes.
But today’s progressive model of economic support degrades poor people while taking from them the means of their own improvement, namely jobs. Following the progressive model, government officials seek to force employers to pay “living wages,” and provide a host of benefits they often cannot afford. The result is a rise in unemployment and underemployment. And the backup to this model—the welfare state—is downright harmful to those it would help. The welfare system is degrading, debilitating, complex, and dehumanizing. All too many people cannot figure out how to make it work for them, or simply have too much pride or too many problems to be helped by bureaucratic structures. The progressive model promises to leave no gaps between wants and means, yet produces tent cities and violent ghettoes filled with hopelessness. It speaks of human dignity yet produces welfare dependency and, just as bad, a seeming determination among young people to “drop out” completely from society.
The attempt to eliminate entry-level jobs by demanding that every position provides a “living wage” instead of a step on the ladder toward economic independence leaves millions stranded with no way to improve their economic condition. Progressives may feel good about themselves because they have voted to increase the minimum wage and allow the homeless to sleep in their cars year-round (with art!). But there simply is no substitute for work experience and the habits it inculcates if one is to build a decent life as an individual or a head of household. The alternative is not a hammock of governmental support, but rather the chains of welfare dependency, in which one dares not work for fear of losing benefits, and eventually loses the will to work for oneself and even for one’s children, instead surrendering to despair and resentment in crime- and drug-ridden neighborhoods filled with dangerous strangers.
In more general terms we in the United States are in the process of de-legitimizing work. One of many problems with a tech-centric ethos (the industry simply does not employ enough people to make for a tech-centric economy) is that it devalues work. The game-playing, puzzle-solving atmosphere of Google and other tech companies that encourage their workers to stay “on-campus” all the time is solidifying a world-view according to which ”smart” people are successful. It is not so much what the tech-savvy do for work, which is a limited activity, but what tech-savvy people are—smart, in a quite limited way—and how their personalities and lifestyles are shaped, that makes them valuable, at least in their own eyes. As for the rest of us, and especially for those who work with their hands, they are stand-ins, doing a job until automation takes over for them.
Particularly when one listens to the hypocritical virtue signaling of the likes of Messrs, Zuckerberg, and Gates, one senses an attitude of entitlement mixed with contempt that leaves little room for compassion, let alone a desire to allow people the means by which to forge lives of dignity. Importing workers who cannot leave or ask for raises for fear of losing their visas, exporting manufacturing jobs to veritable slave labor camps, and pushing for welfare and other government programs that provide a “safety net” that keeps the poor safely out of their way, today’s oligarchs see no need to maintain a society of opportunity for anyone who does not score well on college entrance exams or I.Q. tests.
Genuinely intelligent (not to say virtuous) people should not throw most of their brethren over the side of the economic ship, even if they tell themselves that the government will provide them with some kind of lifeboat. Many, sadly, find the progressive ideal of free “choice” vindicated in our current system because workers may “choose” not to work, instead enjoying the (highly speculative) joys of living in a car, a tent, or section 8 housing. But people need to work because they need for their lives to have purpose—supporting themselves and their families, building bridges, feeding people, taking care of their children, and so on. By cutting off the bottom rungs of the economic ladder, progressives are denying millions of people the opportunity to build habits, character, and lives as they learn and move up in the world. Does everyone move up the ladder of economic success? Of course not, and a compassionate society allows for that. But a society that simply demands economic security through bureaucratic mechanisms, while treating businesses like ornery cows to be milked for money and virtue-signaling opportunities, is not showing compassion. It is showing contempt for real people capable of real work, who have real souls, dreams, and moral calls on the rest of us to do better.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
Editor’s note: The featured image is by josemdelaa from Pixabay.