Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Building Poverty, One Rule at a Time

Time for another installment of the History of the Poor!

Poverty, or poorhood, is usually thought of as a state of moneylessness. But it can also be a poverty of options, or a combination of the two.

For example, suppose the guy down the street is doing some renovations to his house and he's clearing out a lot of paneling. I can buy his paneling because he'd rather sell cheap than have to pay the dump to take it. Now I go to a vacant lot, let's say to some little clearing on the public property side of Beacon Hill or wherever, and nail my panels together to build a shack. Voilà! I have a house! I'm a house owner! Pretty soon, I'm thinking about equity, add-ons, subdividing for rentals, and voting Republican.

Two factors work against this plan. For one, "public property" doesn't mean "property for public use." This point is being made repeatedly by the Nickels Administration, as it goes about destroying anything from shacks to sleeping bags found on public property. Whereas "private property" means property the owner (the private person) can use, "public property" means property the owner (the public) can't use. In fact, the city is currently operating under the principle that the public has no inherent right to use any public property, including streets and sidewalks.

We'll talk more about that factor some other time. Today, I want to talk about the other factor: Even if I had the right to use the land, the government wouldn't let me build the shack, because it would violate building codes.

It turns out that building codes have been with us for thousands of years, but it's only been in the last 150 years that they've gotten so stringent that they have prevented poor people from housing themselves. Let's review the history.

The earliest known building codes date back to Hammurabi. The Building Code of Hammurabi, as it's called, required no permits and never prevented any building. All the rules did was provide for penalties in the event that a building was found to be substandard after the fact. So a typical building rule goes: "If a building collapses and kills its owner, the builder of the building shall be put to death; but if the collapsed building only kills a slave of the owner, then a slave of the builder shall be put to death."

At the time of Jesus, building a house on a foundation of sand was considered foolish but was not illegal.

It wasn't until the 19th Century that building codes as we know them took off. Many of these laws were promoted by progressives. For example, as cities became crowded, poor factory workers were so desperate for housing they'd pay to live ten or more stories up. Progressives called for height restrictions on apartments, so renters wouldn't collapse from exhaustion getting to their rooms.

Beginning in 1871, there was a long string of Great [Insert City Name Here] Fires. At first made possible by too many wooden buildings too close together, later Great Fires were blamed on bad wiring. To protect us all from being burnt crispy, governments restricted materials and density, and set workmanship standards.

Today's building codes would prohibit the rebuilding for residential use of most of the structures that our ancestors commonly lived in from the Stone Age until sometime last century.

These codes have a life of their own. Every year some genius creates a design for cheap prefab housing that could be used to house all the homeless people in the world. That genius then finds out that about the only places on this planet where his brilliant unconventional designs don't violate building codes are at the ocean floor in international waters. Waivers don't happen because the construction industry protests.

For our own safety's sake governments take housing options away, create homelessness, and put people in danger.

Usually, when someone breaks something, even out of good intentions, we expect them to fix it.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

No New Homeless, Please

Consider these three recent headlines chosen "at random": "Report: Quake leaves 5M Chinese homeless", "Summertime is Nickelsville Time!", and "[Chicago's] plan to end homelessness by 2012 threatened by subprime meltdown". Watch me pull a column out of them, Rocky!

For some time, a certain fellow editorial committee person for this rag (not me -- the one with musical talent) has been drumming on and on about how totally unprepared Seattle is for a big earthquake and how we here at Real Change should write about all the people who'd become homeless if we were hit by, say, a 7.9 quake centered at, say, Occidental South and South Weller. And what folks should do to prepare properly. Now that a disaster of that magnitude has happened in Sichuan, he keeps saying, "See? Do you see now? What was I saying? Will you listen to me now?"

In fact, when we had the little 6.8 earthquake on Ash Wednesday, 2001, radiating from Nisqually, Anitra "Now, I'm Not Speaking For SHARE/WHEEL Here" Freeman and I were homeless for 8 hours while the authorities made up their minds whether we could safely be permitted to enter our own building. If there had been more damage than there was, like if it had been a 7.2 quake, or if it had struck closer, we would probably still be homeless. I base that guess on the astonishing non-rapidity with which Katrina's victims got relief.

Now, I've been homeless before. So has Anitra. But if we had a really big earthquake like the one that hit in China the other day ALMOST EVERYBODY in Greater Seattle would be homeless, including a couple of million people who have never been homeless before, and including many of the pinheads in the Nickels administration who came up with the extremely flawed protocols for sweeps of homeless encampments in this city, inspiring some to plan a "Nickelsville" in response.

But we don't have to wait for an earthquake to see a lot of newly homeless people in Seattle. The subprime meltdown that's threatening Chicago's Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness isn't just happening to Chicago. Not that Seattle's Ten Year Plan to Plan Planfullness is threatened by it. You can't exactly threaten a thing that's already in the process of imploding from its own stupidity. But it can be made to implode faster.

"Where are you going with this, Wes?" -- you might well ask. Well, what I'm concerned about is, I don't want all these damn Nouveau Sans-Abri messing up the street scene.

I don't want to be homeless side-by-side with Nickels administration pinheads. I don't want to share emergency disaster shelter with ex-Belltown-condominium-owning, BMW-driving, laptop-toting, cappuccino-addicts. I don't want to find myself in a Food Not Bombs line behind the person who last month insisted that Magnolia is no place for people who can't afford pheasant-and-rosemary pâté.

If we have a 7.9 earthquake centered in the Seattle city limits, the streets are going to be OVERRUN with people who wouldn't know a P-38 can opener from a teacup!

Seattle is full of people who think homelessness only happens to drug addicts and alcoholics, and who consider themselves superior human beings. When they're homeless what do you think will happen?

What will happen is, they won't change. They'll STILL consider themselves superior human beings. They'll make a virtue out of being homeless by earthquake, or homeless by foreclosure. They'll turn their own ignorance into a virtue. "Of course I don't know where to find shelter, I wasn't raised like that!" At community meals, if they fall into one by accident, they'll ask for Grey Poupon.

When they find themselves outside at 3 AM needing to use a bathroom and discover the lack of 24-hour public toilets, they will pee in their pants and congratulate themselves that at least they didn't use an alley like "those people."

The streets are no place for people who can't eat cold raviolis out of a can.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Nuclear Families Explode

Time for another installment in our epic History of the Poor! Today's chapter concerns homelessness and the breakdown of the nuclear family.

Periodically, I read other people's opinions. Usually, it's by accident. My eyes are open, writing is in front of them, and I read it, mistaking it for a recipe for soda crackers. Suddenly I am shocked to find myself immersed in an alien world-view. The other day someone stuck a lament for the nuclear family in front of me.

It went like this: "In my day the nuclear family was strong. Mothers stayed home and took care of the kids. Dads put food on the table. They instilled their children with values, and the children always had a home. We didn't have youth homelessness in those days, because kids weren't estranged from their parents."

According to this lament, the nuclear family was the normal family until Roosevelt and the New Deal began destroying it.

Well, I got news for all these lamentators. Even the term "nuclear family" only dates to just after WW II. It's true there have been nuclear families since prehistoric times, here and there, but they have not been the norm.

Prior to WW II there were "families." Lets review, then, the history of families.

The word "family" comes from the Latin familia. It's the same word that "familiar" comes from, as in black cats and all. It meant servant or assistant. "You can undress in front of Grovulus; he's just one of our familiars." Since Rome was patriarchal, the wife and children were familiars to the ruling patriarch, who could therefore sit around in his skivvies all day long. So the family consisted of the patriarch, his wife, their children, their children's children, and whoever else he owned.

Variations, some matriarchal, of this scheme are called extended families. The extended family, not the nuclear family, is the norm among those cultures that have low rates of homelessness. If you want to blame homelessness on a breakdown of families, you have to lament the replacement of the extended family by the nuclear family, rather than the breakdown of the nuclear family. By the time the nuclear family has replaced the extended family social disintegration is inevitable, because the nuclear family sucks.

I'll explain that below. But first, why do people think the nuclear family is the norm? The reason is corporatism. The rise of corporate power and the establishment of legal rights for corporations, overwhelming the rights of human individuals, led to the geographical breakup of extended families. Employees faced choices such as lose work or relocate to the new plant. Mergers and corporate restructures that served only stock holders and management added to the problem. There might not be a new plant to relocate to; somebody still has to move out to find work in another county or another state.

At first these pressures were minor and rare. But they increased steadily, so much so that the breakup of extended families has become a part of our tradition.

Recent US Census data on internal migration shows that one out of every five people living in the United States over the age of one year lived in a different state one year before. Another one out of five lived in the same state, but a different county. With that kind of mobility there's no hope of reinventing extended families anytime soon.

We think nuclear families are the norm because corporations promote them. They don't want us nostalgic for extended families. They like us mobile and fluid. So corporations have used images of nuclear families in the majority of their advertising since Sears Catalogs. The propaganda has worked.

As for nuclear families sucking? Well, it took corporations, a massive civil war, a couple of massive depressions, a Dust Bowl, and two world wars to shatter the extended family. Whereas nuclear families collapse every day from their own inadequacy.

You can't expect a husband and wife team to handle that much stress alone.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

World of Hurt

New research has found that poor Americans hurt more than rich. I personalized the news, as always. "I'm poor. I hurt all the time. Yes! It's true! I'll be your Poster Child of the Marriage of Poverty and Pain!"

[Left: Pained poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning (no relation), and typical prescription drug abuser, said, "Opium - opium - night after night! — and some evenings even opium won't do."]

The researchers based their findings on a one day 24-hour reporting from 4000 Americans selected by Gallup as representative. (A sign of just how representative they were: I was not among them.) They analyzed the data looking for possible causes. One cause: Grunt labor is bad for you in terms of resultant pain; desk work not so bad.

They pointed to a disparity in the distribution of pain relievers. What do you know? Rich people in America get all the pain pills they want, and poor people don't!

A Michigan study in 2005 found drug stores in poorer non-white neighborhoods stocked inadequate supplies of prescription pain killers. It didn't explain the finding. I have no choice therefore, but to make crap up.

Here, then, to carry my personalization of these news items one step beyond, is the 2008 Copyright Dr. Wes Browning Study of Racial/Ethnic/Class Disparities in the Distribution and Availability of Prescription Pain Killers.

[Above right: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, an educated white man able to pass for rich, had easy access to opiates.]

My study's method consisted of listening to poor people, mostly Real Change vendors plus some bus riders, talking about the troubles they have getting pain killers when they go to ERs or clinics, and from going to ERs and clinics that serve poor people like myself and listening to what goes on.

Here's my chief finding: If you look poor, or you are too dark-skinned, you are suspected of being an addict or a dealer. More precisely, that you either have what they call an addictive personality, or you are a hustler who knows lots of people with addictive personalities and you will sell your opioids to them rather than use them yourself, preferring to eat up your profits in high living and whoring.

I don't know about anyone else, but I can't imagine enjoying a whore while in intense pain. But apparently it's the general consensus of the medical and pharmaceutical community that drug hustlers can either fake pain to get pills they don't need or else have a superhuman ability to endure pain for profit, and to use whores. Oddly though, all drug hustlers present themselves as poor or dark. There aren't any of them capable of faking being rich white people.

[Above left: Bela Lugosi, another typical suit-wearing white morphine addict.]

My study includes the following analysis of my central finding. I find that as poor people and the dark-skinned have less access to pain killers to start with, it therefore comes about that when they do have to ask for them they are reduced to pleading. And people who plead are seen as overly needy. Whereas, rich people never have to plead for pain killers, because they know they have the resources to "shop around."

So what we get is a vicious circle. The poor don't get the pain treatment they need, so they need it more, so they are believed less and their motives are impugned more.

The vicious circle turns into a reeling outward spiral when the poor realize that the only option they have left is to self-medicate. They do, and they get caught doing, and the next time they go to the ER they have a record that confirms the addictive personality assessment that was only a guess originally.

It's a mess. The drug war needs to be lifted just so we can sort out who really needs what.

[Right and righter: Typical rich white present day prescription drug addict.]

Bonus Reeling Activities

1. Do you personalize news? What you most likely thought when the FLDS was raided: a. "I'm safe because the Constitution was made for sweet conformists like me." b. "I couldn't be a polygamist. I have never fantasized about a three-way." c. "Tomorrow, cops will beat my door down."

2. Annoy a friend at random. Pick something they like, like chocolate, lying around, sudoku, whatever, and use it to accuse them of an addictive personality. It's fun and easy!