The forgotten American homeless
CBS’s 60 Minutes showed a heartbreaking story last night that described several homeless families with children in Florida. The segment, entitled “Hard Times Generation: Families living in cars” (embedded above), detailed families living at the absolute edge of economic survival as they slept in their cars, in hotel rooms and with neighbors. In a deflating economy with few available jobs, they are the invisible underbelly. Big kudos to 60 Minutes for bringing their plight to our attention.
In 1933, a freshly inaugurated Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed a paralyzed nation with the following words:
More important, a host of unemployed citizens face the grim problem of existence, and an equally great number toil with little return. Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment.
Yet our distress comes from no failure of substance. We are stricken by no plague of locusts. Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for.
By global standards, America is very rich, but we need to ask if our priorities are in the right place. In June 2011 the Florida Council on Homelessness issued their annual report to the governor and legislature. They reported (page 3):
Floridians face a short-term crisis today, and need our help now.
*49,117 school-aged children were identified as homeless in the 2009-2010 school year in our state; this indicates a 19% increase from 2008-2009.
*Florida has the third highest number of homeless persons by state in our country, with over 58,000 persons homeless on any given day
*12,240 military veterans were homeless in Florida in 2009, ranking Florida second in the country for the number of homeless veterans.
Generally, support for the homeless is funded at the local and state levels. These funds are distributed as grants to non-profit organizations who provide direct services. Funding has always lagged need, especially as the economy has continued to stagnate. The Florida Council on Homelessness reported that a total of $300 million was spent in 2010, with about $85 million of that coming from federal grants. But the state of Florida only allocated $8.4 million to staff the Department of Children and Families Homelessness program (page 22) and make pass-through grants to local organizations.
The state of Florida has a budget of $70 billion, of which approximately one-third is passed through from the federal government, mainly for Medicaid. In contrast to the state’s $8 million for the homeless, Florida spent $692 million on prisons in 2011. The homeless don’t seem to be a priority at the national level either. For example the Obama administration has requested roughly $3.2 billion in foreign aid for Afghanistan in fiscal year 2012, on top of whatever the war costs the Defense Department.
Governments are spending heavily, and I’m not sure they have chosen the most important priorities on which to spend our tax dollars. After seeing the 60 Minutes report Americans are surely wondering why we can’t provide for our own people. It’s an important question as more and more families slip off the economic tightrope.