Ever hear the saying, rich people are a different breed? Or something along those lines. What about “money can’t buy happiness,” that is a saying I feel like most people are familiar with. Usually, these phrases are used to put down people in poverty. But “money can’t buy happiness” means the mindless accumulation of excess wealth ultimately doesn’t lead to happiness. It doesn’t mean poor people should learn to be content without basic necessities or financial security. There is this myth that if you work hard enough you can do anything, even become a billionaire. The reality is that your average blue-collar working person is much closer to becoming homeless than they are to ever becoming millionaires. Most of us are just one accident or diagnosis away from becoming bankrupt. And it doesn’t help that being poor now usually just leads to being poorer in the future. Let’s say you have a mysterious lump on your body, but you can’t afford to get it checked out now. So, next year get ready to pay for chemotherapy. Okay, I know that was an extreme example, but it is not totally unrealistic. Now what if you have a really old mattress that you’ve been using for years one that also gives you constant back pain, but you can’t pay for a new mattress? Well, get ready to pay for back surgery in the coming years. Still too extreme? The basic underlying principle is the same, if you cannot afford to “fix” your current, small problems, they’re going to lead to bigger, more expensive problems in the future.
I think we as a society tend to minimize the difficulties and pain that comes with living in poverty. People will say things like “get a job,” or that they should limit spending on “luxury items” like cell phones and eating out. There’s this implication that people are poor because they waste money on things like cell phones, nice clothes, eating out, and coffee. This would also assume that rich people don’t waste money on such things, that they became rich by never indulging on such things. This is false, and it makes no sense. I want you to think of a rich person, any rich person, do they really not spend money on things they do not need? Multiple homes, yachts, boats, and designer clothes sound more like luxury items than cell phones and eating out do. Not to mention, the average minimum wage in the United States is not a livable wage. While many states have been trying to increase their minimum wage to $15 an hour, for many it is still too little too late. Even with a $15 per hour wage, a typical family of four wouldn’t be able to afford the basics in any U.S. state . The current nation rate, $7.25 per hour (15,000 a year before taxes), was set in 2009 and hasn’t risen with the rising cost of living. Which makes affording everyday necessities a challenge. For example, having a cell phone and broadband internet access costs about $120 a month, which is almost 10% of a low-wage earner’s budget . Owning a cell phone and having internet access are pretty important to getting and holding onto a job, especially in this digital age. And you need a job to afford things. With bills and necessities costing so much, that minimum wage is stretched very thin and quickly used up. So it is hard to save up and invest when you have bills that need to be paid now, and if you cannot keep up with the cost of living you don’t really have many options.
In 2020, for the fourth consecutive year, homelessness increased nationwide . So, with the pandemic, the unemployment rate, and the cost of living on the rise it is important for us to examine the policies that impact us all. Public perception does influences policy changes and most of us tend to view homelessness as the simple consequence of one person’s actions rather than examining the policies that make it harder for people to get homes, earn a livable wage, get affordable education, and get affordable healthcare. Most of the stories or news broadcasts focusing on homelessness are presented solely through the lens of how it negatively affects people with homes and their communities. People who are homeless are often characterized as dangerous, dirty, and lazy and their plights are strictly blamed on mental health or addiction rather than any economic or social policy. While yes, it is true that some people who are homeless do struggle with mental health or addiction issues, in many of those cases those issues can be the result of being homeless rather than the cause of it. There are many reasons a person can find themselves homeless: medical debt, job loss, domestic violence, being kicked out of your home for your gender or sexual orientation, being recently released from prison, or the simple fact that housing costs are rising much faster than wages. The problem is that most people believe that homelessness is a personal failing, and that poverty can be avoided, and their own good fortune makes them not only better than the unhoused but more worthy of comfort.
The reality is that this demonization of homelessness leads to public policy choices that seem to be designed to punish homeless people and keep them out of sight instead of actually helping them. These policies include things like loitering/trespassing laws, not enough portable toilets, locking or removing portable toilets at night, and hostile architecture.
- In 2019, 72% of 187 surveyed cities had at least one law restricting camping in public.
- From 2006 to 2019, 33 new laws prohibiting camping citywide were enacted, that is a 92% increase.
- In 2019, 51% of 187 surveyed cities had at least one law restricting sleeping in public.
- In 2019, 55% of 187 surveyed cities had at least one law prohibiting sitting and/or lying down in public .
The standard of living is declining and the gap between rich and poor is growing wider with the rich getting richer, middle class rapidly shrinking, and poverty growing. Even during the pandemic, while most people struggled financially, billionaires saw their fortune increase. Between March 18, 2020, and October 15, 2021, the combined wealth of all U.S. billionaires increased from approximately $2.947 trillion to $5.019 trillion, which means they saw an increase of about 70.3% ($2.071 trillion) .
- The five richest billionaires (Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, and Elon Musk) saw an 123% increase in their combined wealth between March 18, 2020, and October 15, 2021 (from $349 billion to $779 billion) .
“Trickle-down economics has never been anything other than a myth. We need to make the rich and powerful pay their fair share, put power and money in the hands of working people, and build our economy from the bottom up” (Elizabeth Warren). The gap between the rich and poor has some serious consequences with the richest Americans living up to 10 to 15 years longer than the poorest Americans . Poverty in America should not be a death sentence. It will take a massive commitment in infrastructure funding and resources but the very first step is a collective change of perceptions. We need to stop assuming that people in poverty and people who do not have homes are people who have chosen this life for themselves instead of people who are suffering the inevitable consequences of our current social programs and policies, and lack of affordable housing.
Works Cited https://www.cnbc.com/2021/02/21/15-minimum-wage-wont-cover-living-costs-for-many-americans.html  https://www.huduser.gov/portal/sites/default/files/pdf/2020-AHAR-Part-1.pdf  https://homelesslaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/HOUSING-NOT-HANDCUFFS-2019-FINAL.pdf  https://inequality.org/facts/wealth-inequality/  https://newrepublic.com/article/153870/inequality-death-america-life-expectancy-gap