Who Has Failed, The Homeless or The United States?

I found the documentary Poverty in Chicago extremely interesting, partly because I am from the City of Chicago (I write “City of Chicago” to distinguish myself from people who say they are from Chicago when they actually live over 30 minutes away and have never lived within city limits).  I saw many landmarks that I have been seeing my entire life.  One of them was the Harold Washington Library, where I had been forced to go by my family and schools during my childhood.  The documentary also mentioned the location where I was born, Michael Reese Hospital.

The documentary also heavily illustrated another element of my hometown that I am unfortunately too used to seeing, which is homeless people on the streets.  Ever since I can remember I have been seeing homeless people in the streets and on the sidewalks begging for money and food.  When I was younger I would pay them more attention and think about their situation.  My mom would always tell me I would end up just like them if I did not apply myself in school.  Just the thought of living in their circumstances horrified me enough to motivate myself in my academics in elementary school.  However, as I matured I began to try to ignore the homeless that I would see everyday.  I would turn a blind eye to them so I would not have to sympathize with them.

Now, after reading Shklar and Douglass’s readings, I have began to think about the pending citizenship of the homeless.  The idea of whether or not the homeless are true citizens of the United States is pretty intriguing to me because, even though I have been seeing the homeless all my life, I have never thought about their citizenship.  Shklar would clearly believe that the homeless people filmed in Poverty in Chicago are not citizens since they do not work and cannot vote.  Shklar believes that it is crucial that all citizens in a society have the capability to do those two things.  Douglass would most likely also believe that the homeless are not citizens.  Usually the homeless do not have a substantial income and do not have a solid earning (besides what is given to them when they ask for money from strangers), which is vital to Douglass’ definition of citizenship.

However, I believe that the homeless are still citizens.  Although many of them are the main reason why they are homeless (for instance, substance abusers), most of them have not received the assistance from the government that they should have (those that are mentally ill, disabled, veterans, etc.).  Also, the majority of homeless people in the United States are minorities.  The ratio of homeless people within the African American community is overwhelmingly higher than the ratio for homelessness in the Caucasian population.  African Americans only make up 12% of the United States population, yet make up 40% of the homeless in the country.  Such a significantly high homelessness rate from the African American community illustrates the oppression that blacks are still facing today due to slavery centuries ago.

Therefore, instead of questioning whether the homeless constitute as citizens, shouldn’t it be questioned whether the United States government is failing their citizens?  Similar to how the country abused the rights of slaves and paid them no attention as citizens, once again the country is also doing the same to those that are in need and that unquestionably deserve it.

I wonder how those people, including the mentally ill, disabled, and veterans, feel on the Fourth of July.  Douglass refused to celebrate the history of a country that had failed him and his people in such an unforgivable, malicious manner.  If I were them, I would feel that the country has failed me too.  There is no reason why the most powerful country in the world should allow people that have fought for the country to not have a place to live.  The mentally ill and disabled also deserve better from the country.

The failure of the country to take care of its citizens reminds me of the song “Words of Wisdom” by 2Pac.  In the song he flagrantly, yet intellectually, criticizes the country for its oppressive nature to African Americans and those in need.  The song is from 2Pac’s debut album 2Pacalypse Now, which was his most politically conscious work.  Feel free to take a listen.  Enjoy.


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7 Responses to Who Has Failed, The Homeless or The United States?

  1. nmajie says:

    I really enjoyed reading your blog post. I completely agree that the United States is failing their citizens. I know that our government is doing a lot to help those facing socio-economic disparities; however, at the same time, I feel as though the government is not doing enough. The political rights of citizens are controlled by the American democratic government, and the government, as you said, is not necessarily accommodating the American populace. Consequently, one of the main reasons I disagree with Shklar’s reasoning of citizenship is due to its political emphasis. I think that Shklar’s idea of standing cannot be exclusive to social standing because the right to earn and the right to vote are both politically charged. Ultimately, doesn’t she argue for political standing over social standing as a pillar of American citizenship? With this mindset, the failures of the United States government should not be a justification for the depravation of “standing” for Americans such as the homeless population.

    As you stated about Douglass, the American government has had a history of failures in accommodating its population. As Douglass says in “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”:

    “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelly to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.” (Douglass 9)

    This is a long, but powerful, quotation that seems to summarize how it feels to be excluded from the population; how it feels to be disregarded by a government; how it feels to be different. Many of these pleasures of citizenship are influenced by the government’s rules and regulations such as the rights to equality and liberty. The government’s inability to accommodate its population is an injustice. Ultimately, with the assistance of the government, citizenship will not longer be as exclusive because those battling their status as a citizen will have the support of the government. Therefore, Shklar’s definition of citizenship will no longer be as constrained by governmental regulations; citizenship will be more applicable to a larger amount of the population.

    • brianoconnor16 says:

      To Original Post:

      I found your post to be intriguing because of the similarities to your experiences with the homeless that I have also witnessed. Although I am not from the heart of a large city such as Chicago, I have also witnessed many homeless people struggle on a day today basis around my hometown. Unfortunately, I also have found myself ignoring homeless people as I have matured. I think that people are often too quick to judge homeless people and at times immediately label all of their problems as being self inflicted. I think that realistically homeless people are not citizens in American society today. I am not saying that homeless people should not be citizens, but simply that they do not meet the qualifications of citizenship in my mind. Barriers such faced in voting and earning, along with the general attitude of people that have greater opportunities in these areas, create a demeaning atmosphere that dimishes the social standing of the homeless. Shklar’s idea of citizenship as standing struck me to be a incredibly unique way to view citizenship and I tend to agree with this definition.

      However, rather than arguing over a label placed on homeless people of “citizen” or “non-citizen” I think a efforts should be focused towards creating opportunities for these people to advance socially and economically in American society. In Douglass’ “What the Black Man Wants,” he illustrates the necessity to create an opportunity where excluded citizens are given the chance to succeed. Douglass explains, “If the negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs.” (6) A similar approach must be taken with the homeless in America. Programs that give the homeless the opportunity to work and climb the ladder so to speak are highly beneficial. Governmental programs cannot hand them success, but instead must create a larger opportunity for them to succeed through hard work. Laws can also affect how the homeless can move towards becoming citizens and earning the respective benefits that come along with it. Giving second chances to those who have previously broken the law and are barred from applying to many jobs is one way in which the governmental institutions can effect the wellbeing of the homeless.

      Here is an article highlighting the difficulties that convicts have in attaining jobs. If the country as a whole changes their attitude on convicts being unworthy of job offers, the homeless would have a much greater opportunity to improve themselves. Just a thought. http://www.rrstar.com/news/x392063366/Ex-convicts-struggling-to-find-jobs

  2. beneikey says:

    A very well written blog post. Having the interest in hip hop that I have, I loved how you brought in Tupac at the end. While personally I would have used “Trapped” from 2pacalypse Now to best portray the perpetuation of poverty and racial inequality within American culture. This class has made me think about the homeless and the impoverished in a new light, citizenship. I agree that under Douglass’ and Skhlar’s definition of citizenship the homeless who do not earn are not citizens. I feel like this mindset is disappointing, but true. American society is obsessed with productivity, and a citizen in this country finds a lot of identity with their employment. It’s one of the first questions that we ask each other during introductions. “What is your major?” “Where do you work?” “Do you like your job?” Unemployment is seen as such an embarrassment in our society, to the extent that society does not see one as a citizen. Skhlar and Douglass are right.

  3. jakmel says:

    The blog post got me thinking of a concept that was discussed in one of my other classes, in a discussion about welfare which is an issue closely linked with poverty. Despite welfare reform the poverty rate in America still lies between 11% to 15%. One of the main reasons has to with the concept known as ” race to the bottom”. Race to the bottom happens due to competition which causes states to lower, in this case, welfare benefits. This is caused by states not wanting to become “welfare magnets” because welfare programs can be very costly and more people they qualify for welfare means more programs. Because of this states will try to lower the amount of welfare benefits that they will give out, as a way of repelling people and in turn save a lot of money for the state. Not only is this concept a huge institutional flaw in our country but recent welfare reform aimed at saving money, is providing states with incentives to reduce welfare caseloads. This is leaving many people who actually need welfare benefits in a position where they can not get it and in many cases can lead to poverty and even homelessness.

  4. bah2011 says:

    I lived in Washington, DC this Summer, and for the first time in my life I experienced homelessness on a large scale. Growing up in Michigan I had encountered homelessness before but not as much as I witnessed in DC. I would say at least 50% of the homeless I saw were missing at least one limb. I do not know this for sure but I feel strongly that many of the homeless missing limbs had lost them while fighting in the U.S. military. The fact that, in our first world country we have veterans who lost limbs fighting for our country and we let them live on the streets is a clear sign that we have failed the homeless.

  5. emmasag says:

    The question as to whether the U.S. government should be held accountable for specific citizen groups slipping into utter poverty and other issues surrounding homelessness, is certainly valid. It seems clear that homelessness consistently afflicts veterans and racial minorities because of past institutional inequality (some that persist today). But I think it is necessary to note the other side of the story that “Poverty in Chicago” glosses over, which lends itself to Shklar’s point on citizenship.
    The opportunity to earn is an idea that is implied by citizenship, according to Shklar. So, as one homeless figure in the documentary noted, how is one to accept an able bodied member of society, as a citizen when they make no efforts to work or contribute to society (often times linked with drug addition)? The issue of poverty in America is very complex, and this country’s past regrettable history involving racial segregation, among other things are contributing factors to the poverty issue. But aside from these challenges, the issue of individual citizens’ poor decisions leading to homelessness makes it an issue in which blame cannot be laid upon a single party.
    For that reason, I believe it is time for our government to actively support urban reform through targeted tax cuts, research, grant funding or other means to actually address the homeless issue. In this way it would incorporate those who actively pursue citizenship according to Shklar’s criteria. But, helping everyone just isn’t always a viable option, and certainly not a reasonable task for the government to pursue.

  6. mrs010 says:

    I believe that placing the responsibility of solving the issue of poverty in the US government’s hands is a cop out to not hold ourselves, as citizens, in any way accountable for the situation we face. We far too often label a homeless person or someone in poverty as a “victim”. I am not denying that some are, but by doing this we displace the blame onto people who we are giving all of the power to in the first place. A lack of personal responsibility for not only our own lives, but those of our fellow citizens, as well, has caused the problems we face today. By telling yourself and others that there is always someone else to blame for your problems, you are feeding into the difficult situation that our country has put itself in. The US government has not failed its people, the citizens of this country, who blame the government for not taking care of everyone, have failed each other.

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