the joads revisited

From Reuters:
Between railroad tracks and beneath the roar of departing planes sits "tent city," a terminus for homeless people. It is not, as might be expected, in a blighted city center, but in the once-booming suburbia of Southern California.

The noisy, dusty camp sprang up in July with 20 residents and now numbers 200 people, including several children, growing as this region east of Los Angeles has been hit by the U.S. housing crisis.

The unraveling of the region known as the Inland Empire reads like a 21st century version of "The Grapes of Wrath", John Steinbeck's novel about families driven from their lands by the Great Depression.

As more families throw in the towel and head to foreclosure here and across the nation, the social costs of collapse are adding up in the form of higher rates of homelessness, crime and even disease.

Further up the coast, a homeless encampment in Portland, Oregon has been designated a campground, a victory for the 60 residents and their advocates, who waged a long legal battle to win the official label. Dignity Village, made up of tents and scavenged shelters, which violate city housing codes, is now legal.

If you've read The Grapes of Wrath - which I hope you have - this will sound familiar.
"Usually, when I became homeless, I went into the woods," said the village's treasurer, Tim McCarthy. "I was all alone -- this was the first chance I had to be around other people in the same situation."

Critics of the tent city argued that the focus should instead be on creating affordable housing, but supporters say that solution would take years to implement.

Dignity Village was founded by eight homeless men and women who decided to pitch five tents on public land, saying they had nowhere else to go. Waiting lists for shelter beds, a recently released study said, is as long as 12 weeks.

The encampment has grown to include its own village council, elected officers, a Web site and nonprofit status.

Other cities try to discourage large-scale encampments of homeless people. In October, Seattle cracked down on a homeless camp in the woods. In Anchorage, Alaska, authorities cleared out about 50 sites in May because of the danger posed by campfires.

Income inequality in the US has been widening for decades, and in recent years has become significantly worse.
Income inequality grew significantly in 2005, with the top 1 percent of Americans - those with incomes that year of more than $348,000 - receiving their largest share of national income since 1928, analysis of newly released tax data shows.

The top 10 percent, roughly those earning more than $100,000, also reached a level of income share not seen since before the Depression.

While total reported income in the United States increased almost 9 percent in 2005, the most recent year for which such data is available, average incomes for those in the bottom 90 percent dipped slightly compared with the year before, dropping $172, or 0.6 percent.

The gains went largely to the top 1 percent, whose incomes rose to an average of more than $1.1 million each, an increase of more than $139,000, or about 14 percent.

The new data also shows that the top 300,000 Americans collectively enjoyed almost as much income as the bottom 150 million Americans. Per person, the top group received 440 times as much as the average person in the bottom half earned, nearly doubling the gap from 1980.

. . .

The disparities may be even greater for another reason. The Internal Revenue Service estimates that it is able to accurately tax 99 percent of wage income but that it captures only about 70 percent of business and investment income, most of which flows to upper-income individuals, because not everybody accurately reports such figures.

. . .

Robert Greenstein, executive director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, an advocacy group for the poor, said the data understated the widening disparity between the top 1 percent and the rest of the country.

He said that in addition to rising incomes and reduced taxes, the equation should take into account cuts in fringe benefits to workers and in government services that middle-class and poor Americans rely on more than the affluent. These include health care, child care and education spending. The analysis by the two professors showed that the top 10 percent of Americans collected 48.5 percent of all reported income in 2005.

The disparity is growing in Canada, too, fueled mostly by housing costs. From 1999 to 2005, Canadians in the top 20% income bracket increased their wealth by 19%. Those in the bottom 20% gained no ground at all.

I haven't read about homeless encampments in Canada but there are homeless people in Toronto, and some homelessness in all Canadian cities. Obviously it's much worse in the US, where half of all bankruptcies are a function of medical bills, and what's left of the social safety net is extremely porous.

We must remember that this gross inequity is not a law of nature. It doesn't have to be this way.

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