The Poor and the Homeless: Who Is to Blame
The United States of America is a country worth admiration. Its democratic and diverse society has a unique sense of national identity. However, despite the objective reasons to be proud of their country, Americans often cross the line of being egocentric and think of their country, the world’s hegemon, as an exceptional society with no ills and wrongs. The utopian vision and the inability to admit the flip side of the American coin is a way to ignoring the burning problems instead of addressing them. “Americans have traditionally insisted that they provide a model for the world, that theirs is a formula that others can follow, and that there is no better life available elsewhere” (D’Souza 1003). Unfortunately, people who think the way D’Souza describes forget about such issues as poverty and homelessness in the USA. Among these two notions, poverty is often the reason for homelessness and vice versa. Very often, these two phenomena form a vicious circle when people lose jobs, lose homes and become homeless, cannot earn money to join the mainstream society, while their poverty deepens day by day. Unfortunately, not many have the strength to get out of this “poverty cycle” (Awalt n.pag.).
“If we divide the world crudely into rich nations and poor nations, two thirds of them are desperately poor, and only one third comparatively rich, with the United States the wealthiest of all” (Hardin n.pag.). Even in this single sentence, there is an overtone of pride and the aforementioned exceptionalism. Poverty is erroneously attributed to developing countries, exclusively. However, due to the law of social stratification, social hierarchy with its rich and poor exists in every society. Of those people who see and admit the issues of poverty and homelessness in the American society, many often fall victim to another serious misconception. It is believed that the poor and the homeless on American soil are the only ones to blame for their miserable status because, presumably, the country provides enough opportunities for employment, education and personal self-realization overall. In reality, many factors, including those that are not in human power or control, make a person poor or homeless. Sadly, many people dare to take liberties in prejudging the homeless and labeling them with various epithets and notions. The issue of an intolerant and discriminative attitude towards the poor and the homeless as well as shifting the blame to their shoulders is the first sign of putridity in the “democratic” and “tolerant” American society. This essay will analyze how the issues of poverty and homelessness are portrayed in the media and, respectively, how intolerance and judgmental criticism manifest themselves in the attitudes of the authors towards this social problem.
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Reading the article by Christopher Awalt appeared to be a shocking and traumatic experience. The author uses the words “haggard character” to refer to the homeless (Awalt n.pag.). It is twice as sad when the reader learns that these words are said by a person who was once a volunteer helping the homeless. Awalt believes and tries to convince everyone that the roots of the issue of homelessness are in the homeless themselves. However, stating it as an obvious fact is as short-sighted as saying that the rich are solely responsible for their immense fortune. In fact, many rich people are already born rich and/or inherit their parents’ wealth and status. With the status that they have not earned, there comes even more money because their family name works for them. Others win the lottery, which is also hardly their achievement because all they do is going and buying a lottery ticket. Millions of others do so every day and never win. Thus, wealth is the result of pure blind luck. The same logic is true for the poor and the homeless. Having been born in a poor family with alcoholic parents is not a child’s fault. Such children seldom get a good education and, respectively, a good “startup” in life. They fail their exams, are not accepted to higher educational institutions and, consequently, cannot find a worthy and well-paid job. Others may be born in happy families, but are humiliated and broken by the community, for example, by other school children or even teachers who label them as “stupid” and treat them as outcasts. In fact, the reasons are numerous, and not always a person can withstand their pressure.
Somehow, the author seems to counter-argue his own words. He admits that homelessness is not always a conscious choice; however, he dares to generalize and state that the homeless, as the social category, are the ones to blame. For some reason, Awalt says that people with personal or social tragedies are not the ones who constitute the majority of the homeless. With all due respect and understanding that, perhaps, his experience is bigger than anyone else’s, it is evident that the conclusions that the author draws should not be regarded as an objective truth or the only true formula of homelessness. In defense of his major argument that the blame is on the homeless, Awalt says, “they choose the streets” (n.pag.). I think that the use of the word “choose” as a reference to a free and conscious choice does not apply here. Awalt lists “mental illness, alcoholism, poor education, drug addiction” as the main reasons for homelessness (n.pag.). Thus, a logical question arises concerning the consciousness of the choice a drug addict, a mentally ill person, an alcoholic or a poorly educated person makes. Moreover, the aforementioned issues are not simply personal faults but primarily diseases. For example, alcoholism is a disease that can be triggered by many factors such as genetics, upbringing, delinquent peers, and the natural propensity to alcoholism, among others. In other cases, a person is morally weak to withstand the pressure of life so they surrender to addictions. A person should not be blamed for any of these. Instead, they should be treated and helped.
Awalt mentions responsibility as the quality lacking in the homeless. “In a society that has mastered dodging responsibility, these homeless prefer a life of no responsibility at all” (Awalt n.pag.). Apparently, responsibility is not an inherited quality. Responsibility is taught to an individual by the social institutions starting from a family and ending with schools and universities, or even workplace. The fact that a person does not know this idea and does not use it as guidance in their life is the fault of society. If something is not mastered, it means it was taught in the wrong way. The same is true for nonviolence, namely if parents and society teach a child to love nature and all living beings, the child will perceive this imperative as the only way to live their life. Naturally, there are always exceptions from the rule where the common saying “accidents will happen in the best regulated families” applies. However, what Awalt uses as the proof of his argument is just another misconception, not an exception from the rule and not a rule per se.
An example of an old man that Awalt mentions makes the author come to an erroneous conclusion. Somehow, Awalt labels the man as morally weak and prone to leading an irresponsible life with no obligations and no desire to work hard. Undoubtedly, a sound degree of the author’s frustration about this man on whom he spent half a year of his own life, helping, is understandable. However, Awalt is wrong when thinking that the man did not want to change his life. Quite possibly, he simply could not, for many reasons such as having the lack of faith in himself or due to his addiction that was not treated and overpowered him, among others. Despite the faith in the American medicine, it is not omnipotent. There are many diseases that it cannot cure even in the twenty-first century of high technologies. Alcoholism is one of such diseases. It worth admitting, however, that Awalt is right in one respect, “Unless the homeless are willing to help themselves, there is nothing anyone else can do” (n.pag.). If a person does not want a change, no one can make this change happen for them; however, one must agree that “want” and “can” are quite different notions. Sometimes, people want to change their lives, but cannot do it, even with someone’s help. It is clear that by no means would the homeless and the poor be able to manage the change if society puts all the blame on them and denies any involvement in their tragedy.
Perhaps, it is time to grow over the exceptionalist and utterly utopian vision of the American society and admit that in a system where everyone and everything is interconnected, the lowest strata cannot and should not be blamed for their status. After all, they are holding the weight of the whole social pyramid on their fragile shoulders.