Commentary by Kathryn Harris
Since the Great Recession, the necessity of having at least a college degree has taken an even greater role in daily discourse. While education is often regarded as the be-all end-all for obtaining a white picket fence life, one or even two degrees may not always be sufficient in thwarting homelessness or poverty. As we are all well aware, the unstable economy precipitated a shockingly high number of layoffs. Some of those employees, already teetering on the edge of poverty, were finally pushed over. But we also know that finding yourself in a destitute existence is far more complicated than this picture alone. As the economy recovers, we notice a number of Ohioans living well under the poverty line while either working or having graduated from college. It seems that poverty alleviation is not just a question of hard work or dedication, but about the opportunity for economic mobility – something so intrinsic to the American Dream. Perhaps the typical lens through which we define poverty needs to be updated.
If all homeless people are anything, they are not monolithic. The homeless are a diverse demographic and this extends beyond the realms of just race or ethnicity. For something as conspicuous as homelessness, many of us wonder why. Laziness? A corollary of a flawed institution? Addiction? Legal barriers? It is a deeply nuanced question that has plagued homeless advocates and politicians alike. Well just as the homeless are heterogeneous, what got them there is varied as well.
According to a report by the Ohio Association of Community Action Agencies, 1 in 12 impoverished Ohioans has at least a bachelor’s degree and 42.3% of impoverished Ohioans are in the workforce, yet the state’s poverty rate is still hovering around 15%. With higher education being nearly synonymous with financial stability, it seems paradoxical that a college-educated person could live in poverty. To be clear, there is no doubt that a university degree often allows for greater economic security than does a high school education alone. But why, especially when the poor are often deemed inherently uneducated or lazy, are such a high number of those living under the poverty line working either part or full time and/or have completed college?
These statistics symbolize that the ability for the working or college-educated poor to ameliorate their situation is unbelievably challenging. The old claim that the only solution to ending poverty is pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is wanting as that’s exactly what a significant percentage of Ohio’s impoverished demographic is trying to do. This problem isn’t exactly new but it demonstrates how complicated poverty alleviation is.
For one woman, having three degrees in a climate where few organizations were hiring proved to be more of a resume drawback than a resume booster, as many agencies deemed her too qualified. A matter of circumstance and chance can make the difference between stability and poverty. Not only does this challenge the notion that all homeless people are to blame for their situation, but the myriad of factors that influence poverty should prompt us to reflect on why homelessness is not only such a visible but persistent force in Cleveland, especially in a time when suburban poverty is on the rise nationwide.
But what influences the cyclical nature of poverty is still more complex. Being encumbered by a mental or physical illness, for example, has demonstrated to be one of the most serious obstacles in alleviating homelessness, as it can too often provide a one-way ticket to a shelter’s doorstep. SAMSHAs National Mental Health Information Center estimates that roughly 40 percent of the homeless suffer from a mental health problem. Unexpected occurrences can exacerbate an already financially strapped family. If you lose a spouse or partner with whom you shared your income, not only are you losing a loved one, but an often debilitating cycle of depression follows. Let’s place this in the context of Ohio specifically. Figures from the last Census noted that the state’s median household income dropped from 2010 to 2011; supporting yourself after losing half of your household income is logistically onerous to say the least.
So does the age-old notion that people are homeless due to fault hold water? Well what’s clear is that homelessness is a multifaceted, almost intrinsic aspect of our society. But attributing error on the part of the homeless seems to be more of a misplaced excuse for justifying the social hierarchy than anything substantive. Even if someone did make a mistake that led them directly to homelessness then, well, okay. Making mistakes is an irritatingly intrinsic part of life. Many having already been on the brink of poverty can make fewer mistakes that much more impactful. Poverty influences everyone, at each level of the economic strata.
Editor’s Note: These are reflections based on the last issue of the Street Chronicle Issue 20.2. See www.neoch.org for the Archive of old Street Chronicles, including the last issue.
Copyright Street Chronicle Cleveland Ohio August 2013