As I sit in our warm and comfortable office this holiday season, I don’t feel like celebrating. I’m angry and frustrated – frustrated that in a time where people are struggling, our government seems to be looking at how it can be meaner to the growing number of people in need, not more compassionate. Just look at what we’ve seen in the public policy arena in recent weeks:
First, the City Council of the District of Columbia considered legislation that would require homeless persons to provide proof of residency before being allowed to access a shelter. And the law’s backers, in promoting their bill, declared explicitly that it was intended to prevent homeless people from flooding DC shelters during hypothermia season, when it is too cold to sleep and live outdoors. This bill passed on its first reading, with jingoist councilmembers demanding that DC resources be reserved for DC residents, and ignoring the reality that low income people move constantly between the District, Maryland, and Virginia. Given the first vote, it won’t be surprising if the bill is approved a second time and signed into law. If it is, we can expect more people to die on our city’s streets this winter.
And Washington isn’t the only city deciding to punish poor people in tough times. Word broke last week that the City of New York is conducting an experiment to test its homelessness prevention program. What’s the experiment? They’re accepting some eligible applicants and denying others, when money is available, just to examine whether helping people prevent homelessness really works. How dare we study people in need as if they were sub-human lab rats? What re-examination of the obvious is next? Next time it rains should we give ten people umbrellas and let ten go without, and see who gets wetter? Perhaps, as many commenters recommended on the New York Times website, we should divide up the wealthy Americans about to receive a great big tax cut. We’ll give half the cut and see whether they create more jobs than the other half, who will be taxed at higher rates so they can serve as a control group.
Speaking of taxes, before President Obama and Congressional Republicans struck a deal last week, tax provisions to benefit corporations had been linked all year with a billion dollars for the National Housing Trust Fund – designed to produce new units of badly needed affordable housing. But when the final deal was struck – the tax changes stayed, while the housing money was nowhere to be found. It will be quite a holiday – as long as you work for a bank that’s foreclosing on homeowners, and aren’t a low wage employee struggling to maintain a job and a place to live.
So what’s most frustrating about this? Perhaps it’s the feeling that our public officials just don’t seem troubled by all of this. Except maybe for one – Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. In an extraordinary display, Senator Sanders took the Senate floor last Friday and held it for more than eight hours. He spoke passionately about the struggles of working families and other low income Americans, and appealed to our better angels during this holiday season. Thank you, Senator Sanders, for giving a voice to everything I’ve been thinking. I just hope President Obama, Congressional leaders, and local government officials were listening. If they were, perhaps we can look forward to a positive 2011 policy agenda that offers compassionate and fair solutions to difficult social problems.
-Jeremy Rosen, Policy Director