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The Hole In The Net Essay, Research Paper

Our social safety net has a hole in it. The fibers of the net are

decaying; the hole is getting bigger. More people are falling through,

and the people with the least strength are holding the most of the

weight. Three to four million Americans are homeless according to the

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 5.5% cannot find jobs

according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, and the figure is over

twice that in the 20-24 year old age group, according to the Department

of Education. A very slim minority of these people are sucking off the

system, but the vast majority just had a bad break.

Such is the story of Peter and Megan, as told by author Jonathan Kozol

in his Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Book Award winner Rachel and Her

Children: Homeless Families in America. Peter was a carpenter and she

was a homemaker who raised their five children. They lived in a neat,

working class apartment building in New York City. Peter did

construction for public housing projects, and had a vast array of

technical skills and tools: ?I did carpentry. I painted. I could do

wallpapering. I earned a living. We spent Sundays walking with our

children on the beach.? It may sound like this was a happy family,

living the American Dream. Perhaps they were — they were self

sufficient for all of the 12 years that they had been married, they had

a steady income, a close and loving family, a home, and a chance for

their children to do even better than they had done. Then the fire

struck. They came racing home after hearing the news, only to find that

everything had been destroyed. The children lost their pet dog and cat,

Megan lost her grandmother?s china, but Peter perhaps lost the most: his

tools. Since the fire, he has not had a job, because a carpenter without

tools might as well not have eyes. He explained that for every job he

had, he would add a new tool to his collection. But they all went up in

the blaze. When Kozol first met them, they were living in a welfare

hotel in New York, where they had been living for two years. They can?t

get out because federal assistance programs (better known as welfare)

tell them that their family limit for an apartment is $366 a month –

this with seven family members living in New York City. (In comparison,

that?s about the rock bottom price for a week in a New York City one

room motel.) In their two room ?apartment?, the entire place is falling

apart, with crumbling walls, no working toilets, and a stench Kozol

describes as ?overpowering.?

A year later, Kozol meets Peter and Megan again. This time they?re

living on the street, and their children have been taken away, all to

different foster homes, because, Peter says ?White children are in

demand by the adoption agencies.? The social safety net designed to help

people who are down on their luck: where is it for Peter and Megan, not

to mention their children? And without a safety net, how can we expect

people to fulfill this ?American Dream?? Evidently, we can?t. It?s as

good as dead.

Peter and Megan are real people. This is a real story. For as long as

anybody can remember, we?ve been pounded by success stories of the

American Dream. But for every Colin Powell, Lee Iacocca, Bob Dole, or

Arnold Schwartzenegger, there are dozens, if not hundreds of Peters and

Megans. And as long as there are people who want jobs and can?t get

them, as long as children live on the streets because of no fault of

their own, as long as the value of a dollar for the worker keeps

declining, we can?t really say that the American Dream is a reality.

The American Dream doesn?t have a set definition. It used to mean

having a husband who worked and provided for his family, a wife who

raised the children, and for every generation, a chance to do better

than your parents and to have your children do even better than you. But

today a new definition of the dream is in order. It basically comes down

today to the knowledge that if you, as President Clinton says, ?work

hard and play by the rules,? you will be able to provide food, clothing,

shelter, medical care, education, and a few pleasures for your family.

First, though, society needs to get its proverbial house in order. As a

society we need to make certain that some things are brought back to the

table if we want to restore the dream, specifically:

· Job stability – Without a steady source of income, it?s impossible to

have a budget on which to base how you allot your money, and obviously a

steady cash flow is the only way to purchase the necessities.

· A superior pubic education system – In order to get ahead, you have to

have an education. In order for people to allow their children to do

better than they did, their children have to have more education. Some

programs like a voucher system that would jeopardize the public

education system are threats to the American way of life because they

strip public schools of their income base and direct it to private and

parochial education, which should only be subsidized by parents, the

private sector, and the country?s religious institutions that we give a

tax-exempt status to for this reason among others. Some would say that

the public education system has failed, that the buildings resemble

prisons more than schools, that there is incessant violence, and a whole

host of other complaints, but they can all be fixed as soon as we start

taking care of the underclass that we created. It has become a

self-perpetuation situation and a self-fulfilling prophecy. Certainly

nobody expects there to be an American Dream without a firm educational

basis, and certainly nobody believes that our country would have been

better off if we has never had publicly subsidized education.

· Dollar power for the worker – Inflation must be low and the dollar

must remain strong in a world market. Almost all workers are now also in

competition with every other worker in the world. Purchasing power must

be kept high for the working class, and the minimum wage must be enough

on which to support a family. According to Harvard economics professor

Larry Katz, the budget would be balanced today if real wages had real

increased at the same rate over the last two decades as they had over

the two and a half before that, all other factors remaining the same. In

addition, the dollar cannot remain strong without balanced international

trade and an internal stimulation of the economy. Tariffs are a

historically useful tool for restoring trade imbalances. They add money

to the federal budget while encouraging Americans to buy domestically

made products and sending a strong message to companies that operate

sweatshops in places like Haiti, Indonesia, El Salvador, and Sri Lanka,

all places where popular brands like Nike, Reebok, Structure, Tommy

Hilfiger, Guess, and Liz Claiborne have factories. These sweatshops both

deprive their ?employees? of basic human rights but cost Americans jobs.

· A message of hope from public officials – The government must see the

American Dream as a viable possibility, or else they will plan for

failure and self-destruction.

· And finally, a net to fall onto as needed. Every time someone switches

jobs, has an illness, has an unforseeable disaster, or falls between the

cracks, we can?t expect him or her to start all over again. The whole

purpose behind this safety net is to allow people to tread water for a

few minutes when they need it the most. It?s seldom a way of life,

except for people that fall through the gaping hole in the center.

It will be impossible to attain these goals without some form of

government intervention. Conservatives talk about the ?heavy hand of

socialism? like it was the Antichrist. This will not lead to government

regulation of every facet of our lives; it will merely set up some new

programs, eliminate some old ones, and restructure the existing ones to

patch the hole so that the net can catch people and help them rebound.

* * *

The Homeless Voices Project is a project sponsored by the National

Coalition for the Homeless that gets the stories of the homeless to show

the more fortunate what they?re going through. The best way to express

how the dream is failing is by telling the stories of those that it has

failed for in their own words, the words of the men and women who feel

the pain of desertion by the country that promised to help make them

strong. (The actual voices of these people can be heard on the Internet

at http://nch.ari.net/vocpage1.html using Netscape, MS-Explorer, or NCSA

Mosaic with the appropriate helper applications.) Every one of these

people has been failed by one of the tenets of the dream. Mike, like

Peter, is a construction worker.

"I’m a construction worker, unemployed at the moment, and living at a

shelter. There’s three or four guys who are on the same project with me,

who live there. The situation here in Washington is that there are

no….no strong unions or regulations for putting up these government

buildings and as a result, we just make enough to basically feed

ourselves. And…by then, the job is over. And then we have to look for

another one which may be a year from now, and it’s just not…possible

for us to get into the …the permanent world that most people are in.

And most people are laying people off instead of hiring, there’s just no

permanent jobs available. The best you can do is a temporary one. So, we

go from one temporary situation to another, and never manage to get

enough money together… to… to do anything…for ourselves in a

permanent way. So it’s kind of a self-perpetuating situation.

"I don’t own a car… The recreation, if you want to call it that, is

mostly with the church I belong to. I go out to their activities. We

have picnics… retreats…evening activities– tutoring, things like

that. And that’s what I do in the evenings. It’s good to get away

from…from the hopelessness that most people like myself have to deal

with twenty-four hours a day.

"So, hopefully it won’t always be like this, but I don’t see anything

happening to change it right now."

Mike is one of the lucky ones. He can at least work from time to time,

and make some money. But there is no way that he can move up in the

world when he can?t even afford a place to live. The conventional wisdom

is to sacrifice, but where is that sacrifice to come from? With

corporate America ?restructuring? (read: laying off and firing), it has

become impossible for people like Mike to enjoy the first part of the

dream: job stability. And when he has a job, his dollar is worth the

least it?s been worth for the working class since the Eisenhower


Angela had a job, paid her taxes, and played by the rules. But a string

of unfortunate events put her living in a cardboard box in Manhattan.

She is educated, hard-working, and thoughtful. But she, like so many,

slipped a little bit and there was nothing to catch her.

"Hello everyone, my name is Angela Owens, and I am homeless. I want you

to know that homelessness can… [happen]to anyone. It can happen to

you, it happened to me. I had three years of college. I worked two jobs

for four years, and things happen… and that is one of the reasons why

I am homeless. Uh.., you don’t necessarily have to be mentally

incompetent, you don’t necessarily have to be handicapped. Things can

happen, whether you have a silver spoon in your mouth, or you are just

below the poverty line. You can become homeless."

Paul Deitrich is an African-American man who saw his minimum wage job

go from one on which he could take care of himself to one where he could

barely scrape by and have no real savings to speak of. Then that job

bottomed out on him, he got his two weeks notice, and he was on the

street within a month. Both the lack of job stability and the lack of

dollar power contributed to his fall. And there is no net to help him

get back up — how can you apply for a job when you don?t have a phone

number, address — or even any clean clothes?

"It’s a real tough job…to pay the high cost of rent–on minimum wage,

or a small pension. It’s really almost impossible. The economic bind

that people are in, who have real small incomes, or no incomes at all is

unbelievable. I remember in the last years of Dr. King’s life, he moved

away from social commodation (sic) issues and concentrated more on

economic issues in the South–in terms of supporting the organization of

hospitals and garbage workers to raise the minimum wage to help remove

this bind. The bind got worse, because nowadays with computerization and

automation, the whole strata of lower level jobs has been completely

eliminated. And Dr. King, in the last years of his life, was not only

interested in that, he was organizing at that time a poor peoples’

encampment to dramatize the terrible bind the lower levels of our

societies are in. And in fact, he had begun to formulate a slogan, which

might describe what?s happening to hundreds of thousands of people here

in the United States. And that slogan was

written: "Unbridled Capitalism is Economic Terrorism"… And we have to

live with that. And it drives many of us to despair–and behind that

despair, we turn to those things that numb our despair…

"Similar to the enclosure system at the end of feudalism, when the big

land owners realized they could make far more money by driving the serfs

off the land and growing sheep for the factories. And the cities in

Northern Europe filled up with many, many hundreds of thousands of

people who had a rural culture, and didn’t know how to deal with the

urban culture at all. And the despair got so great. That is when in the

history of the world alcoholism became epidemic–out of that despair.

And it seems like we’re seeing a similar, similar situation now.

"And when you?re homeless, where do you wash your clothes? When you?re

homeless, where do you clean yourself? The good God-fearing women in the

churches provide us with food, which is a great blessing. When you look

for a job, where do you tell them to call you back? When you make phone

calls at a public phone, you might lose at least one out of four

quarters……Where do you get a drink in this kind of weather?"

Society has truly abandoned the people who can be heard the least. But

if we ignore the hole in the net any longer, the middle class will erode

into poverty one family at a time, and then, and only then, America will

not be able to recover from what it will have become.


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