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Ken Williams: Real-Life Consequences of America’s Growing Income Disparity

[Note: This article is dedicated to the Battered Women’s Shelter, Transition House and Joshua, a 5-month-old baby who died homeless on our streets.]

With a raging debate on the subject of the growing income disparity in our country, and in fact around the world, all but lost in the statistics is the flesh and blood of this story. How does the problem of stagnating, and in many cases falling, wages of workers translate into real life? In one segment, that of those least able to defend themselves and most likely to be traumatized by homelessness are our children.

A new and devastating report published by the San Jose Mercury-News documents our society’s retreat from acting as a community to one in which everyone is out for themselves, and damned the ones who fall by the wayside.

Homelessness among our children is at an all-time high. In 2013, 2.5 million children spent some time homeless. That is an 8 percent increase in child homelessness between 2012 and 2013.

Of course, none of this should come as a surprise. With wages still not recovered to pre-recession levels, it becomes harder and harder for those fortunate enough to have a job to make ends meet. With a vengeful Congress rolling back public housing assistance for decades, as well as time-capping how long families can collect public assistance, why are people surprised when the blood payment becomes due?

With the endless Long War bleeding trillions of dollars from our national economy, is it really surprising that money for domestic programs is hard to find? And when the political landscape is strewn with veiled fear and hatred of the underclass and, increasingly, the impoverished tainted middle class, collateral damage that includes our children is a natural outcome.

As a national policy, we have already gutted the African-American communities with a racially tinged War on Drugs. The percentage of Anglo kids using drugs is the same as the percentage of African-American and Hispanic kids using drugs, yet our prisons are crammed full with people of color. For white males, their chances of spending some time in jail during their life is one in 17. For a black man, it is one in three, and for a Latino it is one in six.

Two-thirds of all people in prison because of a drug charge are people of color — two-thirds! Yet it bears repeating that drug usage is equal across all racial groups. The difference is a color-biased and money-based legal system. If you have the money, your attorney can afford to plea-bargain your charges down with sealed records. If you’re poor and uneducated, you end up copping a plea. With a rap sheet upon discharge from prison, loss of voting rights, gaps in employment and a record, what are the chances of landing a decent job?

What are the prospects for children who have been ripped from their homes to live in cars, parks or, if lucky, in big city homeless shelters? The shame cuts deep. Children become worthless in their own eyes. Grades fall, self-esteem plummets and jail is often in their future. For those children unfortunate enough to see their mothers become victims of abuse, another scarring layer is added to their traumatized youth.

There is nothing pretty nor noble about poverty. Homelessness damages, deforms and in many cases condemns our youngest citizens to a lifetime of poverty and/or worse, prison. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I do know there are solutions to this man-made national tragedy. The first step is to acknowledge there is a problem. The second step is to move beyond our fears that separate us from our homeless neighbors.

All of us also must reject the politics of fear, even if it comes from our own City Council or our congressional and senatorial representatives, or those running for president. They must hear such a loud outcry from us that the politics of fear is replaced by the politics of compassion and reason. By the belief that we are all members of the same community and that we strive for a better world together, or we slide back into a world where the biggest and baddest beast rules all others, and the weak are cast aside. If we are better than mere savages of the jungle, then our children — all our children — need our effort to end this national disgrace. If we do nothing, then that absence of love condemns us before future generations who will question what kind of people turned a blind eye to the welfare of their own children.

We are adults living in a democracy. We have free will. Our children are our country’s most precious resource and its future. If we fail them when they need us most, then no excuse exonerates us. As my D.I. told us enough times in Marine boot camp: Everyone has excuses — especially those who fail.

Ken Williams has been a social worker for the homeless for the past 30 years, and is the author of China White, Shattered Dreams: A Story of the Streets and his first nonfiction book, There Must Be Honor. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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