Commentary: Homelessness Transformed by President Reagan

By Brian Davis

      The Homeless Grapevine and all homeless service providers mourn the loss of the 40th President of the United States, Ronald Wilson Reagan. We all owe our jobs to this great American. Without Ronald Reagan, all of us would be working on containing the spread of AIDS or finding jobs for the unemployed. Instead, we have had the benefit of full time employment because of the domestic policy of the Great Communicator.

     He taught us to be proud of America in the face of a growing gap between the haves and the have-nots. He thankfully curtailed the growth of the unions by terminating the air traffic controllers, otherwise the few remaining shelter workers might be unionized at this time. We might have had to pay our shelter workers a decent wage that would keep them out of poverty. Thankfully, we can increase the number of shelters at relatively low costs because the workers make pathetic wages thanks to our beloved Ronald Reagan.

     He transformed our country so that homelessness was accepted, and not just for men, but with familiarity we accepted that families could be homeless. There was a spirit of laziness that had enveloped our country from the 1960s with hippies, drop-outs and those long haired freaks. Reagan changed all that. He punished laziness, withdrew support from the disabled, and those born into poverty or experiencing homelessness to go look for a job in the classifieds. During the eight years of the Reagan dynasty, the country secured social worker jobs, shelter workers, and meal site workers for decades to come. The naïve felt that this strategy was a clever way to end homelessness by shaming the country into finally ending the war on poverty when families started appearing on the street homeless. Silly optimists--who were proven wrong after 19 straight years of increases. We all know that Reagan had Midwestern values, and poverty, homelessness, the frail and disabled were not part of Reagan’s America.

     He brought the wacky ideas of Barry Goldwater to the mainstream. He gave us our beloved full employment program for shelter workers that critics called “voodoo economics” or “trickle down economics.” This is such an insult for one of the greatest Presidents of the last century. He created entire service institutions that will continue to “trickle” on our society for decades. He made people happy to have a job to the point that they will wake up from their shelter bed at 4 a.m. to wander over to wait for a horrible day labor job in places called the “House of Pain.” There were entire industries created or expanded by Reagan including finding low wage jobs at temporary companies, professional shelter workers, or paper shuffler in the health care industry.

     Reagan beat the Soviet Union, and without an enemy the Americans turned on the poor. For 40 years we had the Evil Empire to blame for our problems. We could blame them for the oil crisis, or why “Johnnie can’t read” or for inflation. Without the Soviets, we turned on the “welfare queens,” and the “corrupt unions,” and we even turned on “We the people” by cannibalizing our own government. A victory is a victory. It is a lot easier to be angry at people that we see everyday than funnymen like Yakov Smirnov or a guy with an unfortunate jelly stain on his head. We can slap a picture of a welfare mom or a corrupt government official on the front of our daily newspapers, but Russians do not look evil (they are the same color as the majority of Americans).

     We learned about the benefits of less regulation over corporations, and how we could live with budget deficits. We learned that the health of corporations would save our country even if a large number of people suffered. A corporation that provide hundreds of jobs at expense of some not having a job and all wages stabilize at a manageable level is good for America. I have even come to accept that we need to reward these titans of the board room with lavish salaries, benefits and comfort because they hold the keys to our future. Before Reagan, it was obscene to make 100 times the average employee. Now, that seems quaint and seem as remote as button shoes or bouffant hair styles. Most corporate executives are justly provided 400 to 600 hundred times the average employee, because we have to accept the fact that they are more equal than the rest of us. It turns out that we all might only be three-fifths of a corporate executive.

     I along with all of the people working on homeless owe a huge debt of gratitude to President Reagan, and we agree that his likeness should be placed on the dime. Afterall, who else should replace the guy who brought us out of a depression than the guy who made panhandling one of the few jobs available in many American cities. The next time a guy says, “Brother can you spare a dime,” that dime will contain the image of the man who introduced homelessness to the mainstream of American—Ronald Reagan.

 Copyright Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless and Homeless Grapevine Cleveland Ohio published July 2004 Issue 65B