Posts Tagged ‘Anthony Marcus’

Disappointment and Exploitation in Salvation Army Workfare for the American Homeless

January 30, 2014

Among the various charities, businesses and other organisations, who have attracted bitter criticism for their support and participation in the workfare programme is the Salvation Army. Johnny Void has extensively blogged about it, and encouraged others to criticise and write letters of complaint about the Sally Ann’s involvement in this form of participation. Anthony Marcus also briefly mentions the experience of one of his informants’ experience of doing voluntary work for the Salvation Army in New York in his book, Where Have All the Homeless Gone. I have blogged about the book before, and intend to write a full review of the book after I’ve finished reading it. Marcus was an anthropologist who did his Ph.D. research for a programme intended to aid the homeless in the Big Apple from 1989 to 1994.

One of the obstacles facing the homeless men Marcus studied was the way the financial restrictions placed on the amount of money homeless people collecting SSI, the welfare benefit given to them, prevented them from getting a properly paid job that would enable them to move out of the homeless shelters and not-for-profit transient housing into proper accommodation. The homeless in shelters received $850 in SSI per month. Of this, $700 was deducted to pay for their lodging, supervision and anti-psychotic medication given to those with mental health problems. This left them with about $100 per month spare cash, which was given to them in small sums as spending money. The amount of SSI they received automatically dropped to $508 a month, which would hardly cover rent. Furthermore, those on SSI could not earn more than $74 a week. Marcus notes how this system prevented many of the most optimistic and enterprising homeless men from finding an outside job. The moment they did find one that would allow them the chance of finding a home, the SSI was withdrawn, and they found they could no longer support themselves. As a result, they usually found themselves back in the shelter. The care workers employed to help them therefore did their best to frustrate their attempts to find outside work, in order to prevent them losing their SSI and their place in the shelter or not-for-profit housing. Marcus states that his ‘informants who followed the programs laid out for them by the workers at their residences languished in make-work programs, dead-end jobs, and piecework provided by voluntary agencies at significantly less than the minimum wage.’ (p.26). This was despite the fact that many of his informants took educational courses provided by City College in order to improve their chances of getting a rewarding career. These included a man, who was studying mechanical drawing in order to fulfil his ambition of becoming an architect. Others studied, computers and even history.

One of these ambitious men interviewed by Marcus, was Eugene, a Black American. He decided to move to one of the homeless residences run by the Salvation Army because he had been impressed by what he’d heard about their programme to get people back into work. After a a month or so living and working for them, Eugene became bitterly disillusioned. Their work programme did not live up to his expectations, and in practised consisted of him working in their stores for a pittance. He became so disgusted with them, that eventually he was thrown out for purloining their stock and selling it cheaply under the counter. Marcus writes

‘There were employment programs at the shelter that paid pennies per hour, but most of my informants avoided such low-paid and humiliating work in favour of day labor as a security guard. However, I had two close informants who were involved in a similar program at a Salvation Army residence. Eugene, an African American man in his 30s, had chosen the Salvation Army over several other facilities due to its work socialization program. He had heard about the importance of employment training to their program and told me that he would, “rather be getting some real work experience than sitting with a bunch of mental patients learning how to make friends or practice proper hygiene.” Although their facilities were older and less pleasant than the newly renovated “small not-for-profits” as he put it, “if I put in six months working in one of their stores, I ought to be able to get a real job somewhere and move out pretty quick.”

My first visit to interview Gene was about three weeks after his placement. They had not yet given him a job, but they were paying him 17 cents an hour to mop floors in the residence and had promised him that within the month they would find him a real job working in one of the thrift stores. He was not very happy with the housing, which was a rodent and bug-infested aging flophouse on the Bowery that the Salvation Army had converted into a transitional housing facility, but was optimistic and believed that he was on the way up.

The second visit, a month later, found him still mopping floors and becoming increasingly discouraged at how little his life was improving. As he put it, “I’m not saving any money at 17 cents an hour, I still don’t have a job, and I can’t even afford to go see a movie after work. The shelter was a much better deal.” When they finally moved him to the thrift store after several months, he was not given an actual job, but remained part of their work rehabilitation program and therefore had neither a job description, a job title, nor a minimum wage salary. As he put it, “I’m not a cashier. I’m not an assistant manager. I’m not a sales person. I’m not even an assistant to the assistant janitor. I’m a nigger that pushes a mop and unloads trucks for a couple of dollars a day. I must be some kind of idiot.” he went on to point out that “with my SSI, I am actually paying these crooks $900 a month to give me a seventeen cent an hour job.”….

However, it wasn’t long before Gene was back with his mop at the residence. Caught selling half price merchandise to a young women in front of the Salvation Army, he understood that they would never let him near merchandise again. He believed that there was no way into the formal economy for an uneducated and somewhat disreputable looking African American man with a criminal record and few of the social or job skills necessary for success. He used his psychiatric diagnosis to get out of the work training program and began to secretly disappear from the residence for freelance work. The residence was supposed to be as “supportive” and restrictive as the R.C.C.A. [an intensively supervised residence for the homeless on 48th Street and 10th Avenue in Manhattan], but there was virtually no paid staff to enforce the rules of the treatment programs. My other informant at this facility had recruited him to unload trucks on the street behind the residence for a Chinese store owner. The $5 an hour off the books wage was far superior to the work training program’s 17 cents an hour but it was a situation that would never enable him to get his own housing.’ (pp. 86-7).

I apologise for not censoring the ‘N’ word, but I felt that I needed to follow the text exactly. The term clearly expresses the disparaging racial attitude Eugen felt the Salvation Army had for him as a poor, Black unskilled labourer.

Now obviously, this is an American case, reflecting conditions in New York at the time. However, much of this is recognisably similar to the situation facing many of the unemployed in Cameron’s Britain, regardless of whether they are homeless or not. I’ve met people on my course, who are in a similar position to those homeless Americans, who are stuck in pointless, dead-end jobs in order to keep their benefit. This particular person is disabled and on benefit. The jobcentre is pressuring him to find a job he could do. However, he is afraid that if he did find one, signed off benefit, and then found that in fact he could not do the job, he would not be able to get back on benefit as he had declared himself fit for work.

I am also sure that there are probably others, stuck in a similar situation to the American homeless through the government’s restrictions on earnings from benefits, as part of their campaign to make sure that the ‘strivers’ in work don’t feel resentful and humiliated by the unemployed earning more than them.

As for the Salvation Army and its ‘work socialisation’ schemes, this really does seem merely to be a way of getting cheap labour. As Johnny Void has pointed out too many times, it’s exploitation. And the same thing is happening over here in their support for workfare. If the Sally Ann really is serious about helping the homeless, they should withdraw from the workfare programme. If they do wish to be part of national schemes encouraging the unemployed to perform voluntary work in their stores in preparation for finding real work, then this should be accompanied by real initiatives to get them a job, such as paid work placements. Even an increase in their Jobseekers’ allowance would be good, as it should reward their initiative in trying to find some kind of work rather than simply being a source of cheap labour. Unfortunately, I can’t see this occurring, as the current system seems designed merely to provide big business with a cheap, demoralised and so cowed workforce, thinly disguised as an attempt to tackle unemployment.

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The Ultimate Origin of the Coalitions Punitive Attitude to the Poor: Richard M Nixon

January 22, 2014

I mentioned in an earlier post this week that I’ve been reading Anthony Marcus’ book Where Have All the Homeless Gone. It’s a fascinating book by an American anthropologist, who did his doctoral research amongst a group of 55 homeless Black American men. Much of the book is about the way the American welfare policies towards the homeless failed because of the particular ideological construction of ‘the homeless’. He notes that up until the great depression of the 1920s, studies of homelessness in America were confined to Skid Row, the poor, low rent areas of American cities populated by single room occupancy hotels, homosexuals, transvestites, prostitutes and other marginal groups. During the 1930s academic studies of homelessness expanded to include the migrant poor, forced by the Depression to move from the mid-west to California to find work, like the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath. He argues that all American studies of homelessness adopted a geographical approach to their subject. The homeless and poor occupied particular areas away from urban centres of culture. This view broke down in the 1980s, when the homeless increasingly began to appear outside their ghettos in prosperous residential and commercial areas.

The book also critiques the ‘cultures of poverty’ approach introduced by Harrington, a member of the Catholic Workers and the author of The Other America, one of the great liberal studies of poverty in the US. Marcus states that Roosevelt’s reliance on the Southern Dixiecrats for support within the Democrat party meant that Black Americans were largely excluded from the New Deal. This instead concentrated on White, unionised Americans in regular work. Harrington attempted to correct this at the beginning of the 1960s with The Other America. Part of his purpose in writing the book was to shame mainstream America with the portrait of the grinding poverty that existed in most powerful and wealthiest nation, and move their compassion into the adoption of policies that would raise them out of poverty and integrate them into mainstream America. Harrington was one of the people Lyndon Johnson appointed to his ‘poverty taskforce’ when attempting to construct the Great Society.

Marcus is critical of Harrington because Harrington’s book led to the view that his ‘Other America’ was somehow deviant from the mainstream in that it did not share its values. The book stated that the citizens of this America were without history and beyond progress. Marcus earlier discusses the division of the poor by 19th century Liberals into the categories of the ‘deserving poor’ and paupers. The deserving poor were the poor, who shared mainstream values and had simply fallen into poverty through no fault of their own. Paupers were the undeserving poor, whose poverty was their own fault through their lack of proper morals. These were poor through drunkenness, idleness, profligacy and other vices. This attitude the subsequently entered the scholarship about the ‘other America’ described by Harrington. Marcus notes that no two of the sociologists and anthropologists researching this ‘other America’ agreed on who they were, and the difference between them and mainstream America was merely assumed, rather than demonstrated. Rather than address the question of how their poverty was created by American society, these scholars were instead concerned with identifying who they were. Harrington’s idea that there was a distinct ‘culture of poverty’ was taken over by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a liberal Harvard sociologist, who adopted a Weberian approach to poverty. Moynihan became Nixon’s advisor on poverty and homelessness. Marcus states that, although Nixon launched a number of welfare initiatives aimed at erasing poverty, these were based on the idea of gradually weaning the poor off them. It was under Moynihan and Nixon that the various categories and derogatory terms for the undeserving poor developed, and punitive measures, like Food Stamps, introduced, which were intended to make the experience of welfare as humiliating as possible.

The ‘cultures of poverty’ view that people are poor, through their own fault entered British discussions of the origins of poverty and the role of the welfare state with Margaret Thatcher. It has now become a key part of the Coalitions’ own welfare policies. Many other commenters, like Jaynelinney, Johnny Void, Mike at Vox Political, and the Angry Yorkshireman, have posted about the use of psychological techniques by the notorious Nudge unit at Tory Central Office, which are intended to get the poor to blame themselves for their poverty, rather than the inequalities of a vicious and exploitative system. These bloggers, and many others, have noted the way much of the Coalitions’ policies have been inspired and guided by Social Darwinism, the survival of the economic fittest. Marcus confirms this view, as he states in a footnote to the chapter on poverty studies in America that it may be significant that as Marxism, the main ideological opponent of Social Darwinism in the 19th century, has waned, so Social Darwinism has re-emerged and grown stronger.

And so we in Britain ultimately have Richard Nixon to thank for the bullying and punitive approach to welfare adopted by Thatcher and the Coalition. Perhaps its time someone did the same to Cameron, Osborne, Clegg and particularly IDS and Esther McVey and impeached them for their high crimes and misdemeanours.

New York, 1975, Margaret Thatcher and the Coalition’s Britain: Same Script, Different Actors

January 19, 2014

I’ve started reading Anthony Marcus’ Where Have All the Homeless Gone: The Making and Unmaking of a Crisis (New York: Berghahn 2006). Marcus is an anthropologist who did his Ph.D. research from 1989 to 1994, first examining the causes of the 1988 riots in Tompkins Square Park, and then as a staff ethnographer on a social work project intended to improve the chances of the mentally ill being able to get into and retain housing. Marcus’ informants were a group of fifty-five Black men, none of whom saw themselves as homeless. The book is an examination of the reasons why homelessness was a major issue in the decade from 1983 to 1993, but then suddenly dropped out of American consciousness. From being one of the most discussed and important political issues, it has vanished and become almost invisible, despite the fact that the numbers of the homeless are still rising. Marcus makes a number of fascinating and observations in his book the situation and perception of the homeless in New York. He makes it very clear that Reaganite economics is behind much of the poverty, and particularly blames ‘American Thatcherism’ for its rise. The book is mainly about the failure of the Democrats’ campaigns to end homelessness, however.

One of the important points Marcus makes is that much of the failure to tackle homelessness in US is due to the ethnographic construction of the homeless. Marcus describes how, when he was doing his research, he became increasingly confused about who ‘the homeless’ actually were. Did it include people, who only slept on the streets for a few nights a week, but at other times were in shelters, or slept at girlfriends’? What about the people, who were given space in a storage area, like a cupboard, basement or upper landing in a building for a janitor, in return for which they worked off the books cleaning or performing other jobs. Furthermore, many of the men he studied, like their White counterparts, could be described as ‘bohemian’ rather than conform to the traditional image of homelessness. These were men from middle class backgrounds, sometimes college educated, who viewed homelessness as merely a transient phase before getting themselves off the streets and into permanent, fixed accommodation. One man described himself as a poet. He notes that quite a few of the homeless in New York were college and university graduates, who were left homeless after leaving uni, and who were forced to move around, sleeping at friends’. Get ready, Britain! This is your future! With the rise in tuition fees, and many graduates now forced to find work at lower paid, menial jobs, for which they are overqualified, such as stacking shelves at Tesco or serving in McDonalds, I have absolutely no doubt that this will come to Britain soon, if it already hasn’t done so.

What struck me most of all was the similarity between the comprehensive destruction of New York’s advanced welfare system after the City Went bankrupt in 1975, and the situation in modern Britain. Here, like New York nearly forty years ago, the Coalition is demanding the destruction of our remaining welfare state under the guise of combatting the nation’s debt.

New York City suffered an acute fiscal crisis in the 1970s, which culminated in the City defaulting on its loans in 1975. The then president, Republican Gerald Ford, declared that he would veto any bill intended to bail it out. The government then placed New York City under the control of the Municipal Assistance Corporation in exchange for granting it the right to issue bonds to pay off its debt. The Municipal Assistance Corporation was a consortium of bankers and businessmen given the task making sure the City stayed solvent. Marcus then describes the consequences of this decision:

‘Their version of making the city financially solvent involved the beginnings of a larger ideological project that would sweep the United States, the United Kingdom, and much of the world during the 1980s. The New York City welfare state that provided free tertiary education, a comprehensive public health system, a version of the “dole”, and many other social programs that had brought New York City derogatory nicknames like Moscow on the Hudson and the Soviet Republic of New York City would be no more. As the US Secretary of Treasury, William Simon, testified in October of 1975 about the federal aid program that had been offered to New York City to address its fiscal crisis, it should be “so punitive, the overall experience made so painful, that no city, no political subdivision would ever be tempted to go down the same road”. Tens of thousands of layoffs, scores of thousands of job eliminated through “attrition” in the public sector, often disastrous reductions in health, firefighting, policing, education, and social services, and a tremendous breakdown in public morale followed. …. There is hardly a New Yorker who lived in the city at this time who does not have some memory of a family member thrown out of work, a favourite teacher in high school saying goodbye to his or her class, or some kind of deterioration in city living.’ (p. 37).

This had a disastrous effect on the lives of Marcus’ informants:

‘Many of my informants traced the origins of homelessness to the New York City financial crisis of 1975. They were from families that had depended on the vast New York City welfare state for everything from education and housing to jobs, summer recreation programs, and health care. Even informants who had been young children during the dark days of 1975 could remember adults around them panicking as mass layoffs and budget cuts changed their lives and forced them to scale back their expectations. I had informants who had grown up in New York City who remembered their first experiences of housing loss after a parent was laid of 1975. They talked about going from being “middle class black folk” to being poor. For most of them it meant a brief period in a welfare hotel followed by a move to a poorer, more marginal neighbourhood. Sometimes it merely meant moving to a smaller apartment and sharing a bedroom with younger siblings.’

Elsewhere Marcus described how this led to a massive decline in the quality of housing as whole neighbourhoods were left to become derelict, and the transformation of these areas during the boom in the late 80s and early 1990s when these areas became gentrified. This was the period when New York City’s economy and workforce went from being working class, blue collar manufacturing and industrial, to white collar, based on the financial and IT sectors.

The parallels to the British experience are strong and obvious. Margaret Thatcher, when she was in office, used the financial crisis the country had experienced under Labour as a pretext for a wholesale attack on the British welfare state. Now, 39 years later, Cameron, Clegg and the Coalition are doing the same. They have, however, much less excuse for doing so, as despite their rhetoric the crisis is not the result of overspending by Labour, and the debt is actually much lower than it has been for 200 of the last 250 years. This has not forced the Tories and their Lib-Dem satellites changing their tune, however. It’s exactly the same script, but with different actors.

Or if you want to put it crudely, ‘same sh*t, different +++holes’.