Why do Americans Have a Negative Attitude toward the Homeless?
By: Bobby Pratt

In today’s society, the homeless population of this country is looked down upon by a majority of the population.  The homeless are shunned from the normal walks of life, but have you ever thought why?  Why does most of the middle and upper class American society look down on these people?  Is it because of the stereotype that the homeless population is just to lazy to go get a job, is it because they feel like they are spending their hard earned tax dollars on people who could help themselves, or is it because they just don’t like the thought of the homeless …
 

Horatio Alger Jr.

Horatio Alger Jr. was a post-Civil War author and poet.  “He wrote more than 120 books with the inspiring theme of onward and upward” (Horatio Alger and the American Dream).  His books were directed toward young people in the attempt to show them how good virtues would help them achieve the American dream.  This is reflected in the title of many of his novels.  “Fame and Fortune”, “Sink or Swim”, and “Do and Dare” are just a few examples of the relationship between the titles of his books and the general plot that is found throughout Alger’s writings (Rags to Riches, to Rap).  The general plot for an Alger novel was 

“An adolescent boy with a rural background sets off to earn his livelihood in an urban setting.  He triumphs over circumstances and temptations and starts advancing his career.  At some point in his career he will be betrayed or falsely accused by one of his peers.  Ultimately, the hero will be vindicated” (horatio-alger-faq).  
The main virtues that Alger taught in his novel were hard work, study, loyalty to superiors and subordinates, abstaining from alcohol, frugal living, importance of dress and personal grooming, speaking and writing effectively, speaking the whole truth, courtesy to all, and, accepting the success of others (horatio-alger-faq).  The American public who have been successful in life have followed a majority of the virtues taught by Alger, and are content with their lives.  I feel like this is one of the major reasons for their negative attitude toward the homeless population.  They feel like if the homeless would live by these virtues then it would help turn their lives around and at least make them more respectable citizens.  A good percentage of homeless people are immigrants who came to this country in search of the American dream.  There are countless stories of immigrants who came to America with only the clothes on their backs and took whatever jobs they could find.  These people slowly but surely saved up and worked their way up to a “big office, big house, and a big car.  Then their children get a great education and become part of American society” (Horatio Alger and the American Dream).  Americans feel like all that the homeless have to do to get themselves off of the streets is do what the other before them have done and what the ones to follow will do.  What the American public doesn’t understand is that most of the homeless population is not that way by choice but by circumstances.  
 
Mental and Substance Abuse Problems

Research shows that “deep seated behavioral problems, far more than a lack of housing, cause people to become and stay homeless” (Another Homeless crisis).  A survey conducted in 1987 showed that more than 71 percent of the homeless that were surveyed said they had been in one or more of the following situations:  20 percent in had been in a mental hospital, 35 percent had been in substance abuse treatment, 56 percent had been in jail for five or more days, 26 percent had been in a state or federal prison, and two in five of the population that was surveyed said that they were associated with more than one of the instances listed above.  Out of those statistics it only leaves 29 percent of the population that was survey with out some kind of mental or substance abuse problem (Another Homeless crisis).  This leads me to believe that if these people could help themselves that they would.  Welfare was created to help people in these exact situations, but there is not enough money to go around.  
 

Welfare

This is another reason why Americans look down upon the homeless and poverty driven population.  They feel like their hard-earned tax dollars are going to waste on people who could go out and get their own job instead of living off of the government.  

“The general public views poverty as the result of personal failures and deficiencies.  This perception rest on several myths.  The most prevalent are that poverty results from a lack of responsibility, welfare leads to chronic dependency, it provides a disincentive to work, and recipients of welfare hand down to their children a set of defective behaviors, values, and personality traits”(myths and facts about welfare).  
What most people don’t know is that welfare only cost approximately one percent of the federal budget and two percent of the state budgets.  Another misunderstood fact is that when you hear that the government is making budget reductions in welfare entitlements, 93 percent of the times they are cutting funds away from programs that are designed for the low-income people and not from the programs that are designed to get the people off of the streets.  Yes, welfare is used to get people off of the streets but it is not designed to make these people dependant on it.  Analyses conducted in 1996 showed that 56 percent of people who received AFDC support ended within 12 months, 70 percent within 24 months, and 85 percent within 4 years.  Not all of these people stayed off of welfare, but it shows that they are not dependant on it and are attempting to support themselves.  Another common myth about welfare is that a majority of the recipients are adults.  In 1995, less than 5 million of the 14 million people on welfare were adults, the rest were children.  Also a majority of the population that receives welfare is not a minority race but in fact 37 percent to the recipients are white (Welfare-to-Work).  These are just a few of the misconceived notions about welfare 
 
Welfare is not the solution to getting all of the homeless off of the streets but it is helping.  Some welfare reforms are trying to change the way welfare works and make it more practical so that once people get off of welfare they stay off.  One solution is to “invest in the creation of new jobs that would pay a wage that allows a worker to support a family.  This would require the welfare reformers to put their money where their mouths are and expand economic opportunity” (Welfare-to-Sweatshops).  Another solution is to take away personal welfare and give companies tax credits for hiring welfare recipients (Welfare-to-Sweatshops).  If Americans knew that a majority of the welfare recipients were putting their money to good use and really trying to better their situations I feel like there would be a more positive attitude toward them.
 
In 1995, Washington D.C. was spending 1.6 billion on trying to help the homeless.  That breaks down to $2,667 per person per year or $222 a month (Welfare Reform).  This is enough money to help someone get off the streets and find a job where as if you had no money how could you even worry about getting a job when you are more worried about food and a place to sleep

Recession of 1981 

During Ronald Reagan’s term as president the economy slipped into recession due to a new economic policy known as Reaganism.  In an attempt to alleviate the national debt, government spending was cut in many different areas; this caused a great deal of problems.  Between 1980 and 1982, the economy recorded it greatest decline since the depression.  By January of 1982, there were 11,534,000 Americans that were officially declared unemployed.  As bad as that sounds there were somewhere between two and three million Americans that had been out of the work force for so long that they had quit looking for jobs so they were not officially counted as unemployed.  With the tremendous amount of job losses approximately 17,000 businesses were forced to close down.  The job situation was so bad during this time that in January 1983, there were approximately 20,000 people lined up outside in 20 degree weather to apply for two hundred positions in a auto-frame factory in Milwaukee.  During this recession, Reagan’s approval polls dropped to an all time low of only 41 percent.  Finally in 1984 after an optimistic attitude for the last four years, Reagan was quoted saying, “I think there is a slight recession and I hope a short recession” (Cannon, 260).  He blamed the recession on his predecessors who he said had been bingeing the last thirty years and let the national debt get so great and now the economy was just experiencing a hangover.  Also Reagan believed that the recession would have been over a lot sooner if the publicity would have been positive instead of negative.  He felt if the news would have been showing positive things about Reaganism instead of the reality then it would have all been over with sooner.  On April 21, 1982 CBS aired “People like Us”.  This was a documentary of four accounts of hardship that were caused by the recession.  The first was an Ohio man who with cerebral palsy who had been dropped from the social security rolls, next a Hispanic woman who could not afford preventive cancer surgery for her thirteen year old son, a Wisconsin mother who was caring her Comatose daughter was forced to move to a institution at far greater cost to the government and finally a Milwaukee church that provided food for the homeless was overwhelmed by the increasing masses that were in need of aid (Cannon, 264).  As a result of the recession the homeless population was increased dramatically and funding for welfare was cut.  

Conclusion

So why do Americans have a negative attitude toward the homeless population?  Mainly they feel like the homeless population is a drain on their pockets and a disgrace to their society.  They feel like all the homeless need to do is live by the virtues taught by Horatio Alger and it will turn their lives around.  What they don’t understand is that 71 percent of the homeless population is the way they are due to circumstances.  They either have had mental illness or substance abuse problems that left them penniless and homeless.  These people do not like their current situation that is why they use welfare to help themselves get off of the street and get on with their life.  Most of the welfare recipients do not become dependant on welfare, and most of them are off of the streets and off of welfare within a year.  I feel like if Americans understood how things really were then they would have a 180-degree attitude adjustment.
 

 


Bibliography


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Cannon, Lou.  President Reagan:  The role of a lifetime.  New York:  Simon & Schuster, 
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