Revolutionize the Revolutionaries: Disrupting the Mirror-tocracy of Tech Startups

Google Communications Manager Robin Moroney (left) playing Foosball with an employee.

Google Communications Manager Robin Moroney (left) playing Foosball with an employee.

 

That jobs in technology services are in vogue is hard to dispute. In 2009, of the 56 million people over the age of 25 who earned bachelors degrees, nearly 20 million of them were in STEM fields. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the amount of employed software developers alone is expected to grow by about 72 percent between 2010 and 2020. The salary associated with these jobs makes them hard to resist: in 2011, the median income for a software developer was around $95,000. But with all of this growth and interest in computer systems related jobs, the greatest barrier to entering these industries may be the businesses themselves.

From the get-go, breaking into a tech startup is an esoteric nightmare. In lieu of traditional interview processes, these tech-startups, primarily endowed to young white and asian men, have replaced the suit and tie and hand shaking with a “hang-out” style interview that displays a clear disconnect between companies and their applicants. A blog entry by Jason Freedman of San Francisco startup 42floors (where according to their website he is employed as “The Director of Vibes”) perhaps illustrates this best:

I asked her how she was doing in the interview process and she said, “I’m actually still trying to get an interview.”

“That’s weird.” I told her. “I thought you had already met with them a few times.”

“Well, I grabbed coffee with the founder, and I had dinner with the team last night, and then we went to a bar together.”

I chuckled. She was clearly confused with the whole matter. I told her, “Look, you just made it to the third round”.

It’s clear that employers don’t believe the onus is on them to change their interview process even if it’s mired in complicated practices exclusive to their bubble. This isn’t to say that being able to hang out with your fellow employees is a bad thing, but with an interview process like this imagine who falls through the cracks; what if the applicant doesn’t drink? What if the applicant commutes or takes the bus and can’t make time to get coffee on a whim? What if the applicant were a single mother who has to be home to feed her children and can’t spend her night getting dinner and drinks with a bunch of 20-somethings?

This interview process exemplifies what has been called the “Mirror-tocracy” of tech startups. Hiring Managers and Investors alike have employed these tactics to weed out non-desirable business opportunities because they can’t see the personal value in the people or things they are evaluating. The inevitable fallout has been a highly racialized and gendered field of tech startups that does not accurately represent the populations who hold these degrees. The problem was exemplified by a 2011 incident in which TechCrunch founder and self-proclaimed serial entrepreneur Michael Arrington said “I don’t know any black entrepreneurs”, a quote that  incited serious backlash from black startups that felt that Silicon Valley was purposefully not funding black-led projects for not fitting  the bill. Technology Consultant Anjuan Simmons retorted Arrington’s statement, saying “Since the industry has historically been composed of white males, this is the demographic that has reached the upper echelons of the industry, and they tend to hire, fund, and mentor the people they know: other white males.”

The Mirror-tocracy is perhaps best explained using Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of Cultural Capital. Cultural capital, as Bourdieu described it, are non-financial assets that promote social mobility beyond economic means. Cultural capital can assume many forms; style of speech, how one dresses, or physical appearance  can all be forms of cultural capital.  Cultural Capital is evaluated on what Bourdieu describes as “fields”, an arena in which different forms of cultural capital are pitted against one another to determine which forms of capital are considered viable or valuable to the field. For example, certain assets like formal dress and professional demeanor may be deemed valuable in a traditional office setting, however in a tech startup these forms of capital are not seen as valuable. Cultural capital how you let other people on the “field” know  that you can walk the walk and talk the talk, and before you can even prove yourself in the work environment. Think of it this way: you could be the best soccer player in the world, but if you go on the field in ice skates, they won’t even let you play.

“The notion that diversity in an early team is important or good is completely wrong. You should try to make the early team as non-diverse as possible.” This quote by Paypal founder Max Levchin encompasses the ethos of the Silicon Valley hiring process. In the same speech, Max Levchin describes a case in which his company turned down a stunningly qualified applicant because he said in his free time he liked to play “hoops”. It was this choice of language, Levchin says, that let him know that this applicant wouldn’t be able to “hang” — in his own words, “No PayPal people would ever have used the world ‘hoops.'” Tech startups want employees that look, speak, and act like they do above all else, and as such have created a pseudo-meritocracy not based on knowledge of the job or the field, but knowledge of the culture.

This desire or homogeneous work environments, though perhaps convenient in the short-term, fly in the face of research suggesting that diversity is a good indicator of technological growth. If tech startups plan to capitalize on the large growth of computer service industries in the next 4 years, employers and investors are going to need a serious reality check about who they employ and how they employ them, lest they find themselves on the outside looking in.

 

Black Women & The Labor Movement: Racialized/Gendered Consciousness as Class Consciousness

“African-American women have been victimized by race, gender, and class oppression. But portraying Black women solely as passive, unfortunate recipients of racial and sexual abuse stifles notions that Black women can actively work to change our circumstances and bring about changes in our lives.” – Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment

To say that Organized Labor in the United States is facing a crisis is an understatement. In 2014, unionized labor accounted for only 11.1% of the American workforce, down from 20.1% in 1983. Even back in 2005, SEIU International Executive Vice President Gerry Hudson was quoted as saying that the U.S. “labor movement is becoming dangerously close to being too small to matter.” And while men’s participation in unions has been falling steeply over the past 30 years, black women are now making up the majority of newly organized workers, and more importantly, trying to take the reins in regards to leading and organizing worker’s movements.

As unionization rates for men continue to decline, women are projected to make up the majority of the organized labor force by 2030. Such a shift opens a window of opportunity for more women in leadership positions, and similarly new strategies for collective bargaining educated by women’s experiences.

Alicia Garza is one such organizer. Garza, who additionally is the co-founder of Black Lives Matter, is the leader of the National Domestic Worker’s Alliance, an Atlanta-based group of 53 affiliate organizations that encompasses over 20,000 nannies, housekeepers, and caregivers for the elderly in 36 cities and 17 states. Since its inception in 2007, the NDWA has fought to secure federal labor law protections such as mandatory minimum wage and maternity leave for domestic workers, 23% of whom makes less than the federal minimum wage according to the NDWA’s website. The NDWA has been successful in instituting a domestic worker’s “Bill of Rights” in six states, securing these basic protections. Their push was also integral in the federal court of appeals’ decision to reinstate these pay rules at the federal level in 2015, a move which was estimated to have affected over 2 million domestic workers. In an interview with NBC news, Garza said that “there was a time when black labor was robust and really transformed the landscape of the labor movement in this country. We’re working on getting that back.”

As Garza notes, the historical context of black women’s organization in the workforce is not to be understated. Gender and  race theorist Patricia Hill Collins’ seminal work Black Feminist Thought, Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment describes the propensity for black women to subvert oppressive power structures using a standpoint, or lens, that is particular to black women. As

Collins describes it in Black Feminist Thought, it was (and is) through racial segregation in housing, education, and  employment that black women created their own kinship networks in which they create their own collective wisdom. A major aspect of this epistemology, says Collins, is a “recurring humanist vision”; “whether we advocate working through autonomous Black women’s organizations, becoming part of women’s organizations, running for political office…African-American women intellectuals repeatedly identify political actions such as these as a means for human empowerment (Collins, 1990).”

But as black women begin to bolster the unionized labor force, they are finding it harder to see their visions actualized. Although women are

Black women have been integral to the SEIU's #fightfor15 campaign, an intra-trade  endeavor for a decent living wage.

Black women have been integral to the SEIU’s #fightfor15 campaign, an intra-trade endeavor for a decent living wage.

beginning to dominate unionized labor, less than three percent have held an elected position in a union, and less than five percent have been the president of their union or labor organization. Organizations led by black women such as the NDWA and many others outlined by the Institute for Policy Studys’ And Still I Rise campaign have made the implementation of black women in leadership positions a cornerstone of their mission, arguing that union leadership demographics should match union’s membership demographics; The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that in 2014 black women accounted for 12.2 percent of union membership compared to 10.1 percent for white women, 8.9 percent for Latinas, and 11.8 percent for Asian women.

This mission seems doubly astute in light of research by Cornell University’s Kate Bronfenbrenner which illustrates that the most successful unions are fronted by women of color. One respondent to a national survey conducted by And Still I Rise perhaps put it best: “The current leadership needs to understand that we are not trying to replace anyone already at the table. We want those already at the table to move over so we have a seat at the table.”

 

Service with a Smile: The True Cost of ‘Faking It’

Ever find yourself hung over at a diner at 7am, desperate to get as many hashbrowns and cups of burnt coffee into your body as fast as possible? When the waiter comes over and happily tries striking up a conversation have you ever wanted to suplex him through the nearest table like you were a WWE tag team champion? Well, have some sympathy for that  overjoyed waiter; he’s just doing his job.

This “service with a smile” mentality has been an increasingly prominent part of workplace behavior, where simply being polite isn’t enough anymore. This “emotional labor”, the fancy academic word for this obnoxious inflated happiness, adds a second dimension to work in which employees now must regulate their emotions on top of performing their duties.

The term “emotional labor” first famously appeared in Arlie Russel Hochschild’s The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, in which Hochschild sought to theorize the effects of emotional labor on employees.  Though Hochschild acknowledged that humans regulate their emotions in their private interactions, such as acting happy around friends even if we’re having an off day, she wanted to understand how emotional regulations conducted as a part of one’s job were different than private regulations. Using two groups, flight attendants who were supposed to be “nicer than natural” and debt collectors who were supposed to be “nastier than natural”, Hochschild illustrated that emotionally performative workers began to feel estranged from their expressions (e.g. “smiling” or “grimacing”) as well as their emotions. These findings were dire, because as Hochschild points out, one-third of american men and one-half of american women are engaged in jobs that require emotional labor.

Current sociological and psychological research corroborates Hochschild’s findings. One such study suggests that sales and marketing employees who performed emotional labor felt less capable of addressing issues at home (emotional labor accounted for 28% of the variation in work-to-family interference). The same study found that respondents found that emotional labor were less satisfied with their jobs; about 15% of variation in work satisfaction scores was attributed to emotional labor. Another, more indirect, cost of emotional labor, is that people who exert more false emotions in the workplace finds themselves more exhausted, which has been shown to increased business turnover rates (1)(2).

Emotional labor doesn’t just result in psychological strain, however; some studies have suggested that emotional labor can have psychosomatic symptoms as well. In Driving it Home: How Workplace Emotional Labor Harms Employee Home Life, the authors surveyed 78 bus drivers from the american midwest, and similar to the pieces mentioned above tested for emotional exhaustion and work-to-family interference, but added an extra variable; insomnia. Similarly, the authors found that bus drivers who feigned a smile were more likely to be emotionally exhausted and had trouble addressing issues at home, but in addition had greater bouts of insomnia than those who were not faking smiles. The authors describe these issues of insomnia as a side effect of “state anxiety”, a state of nervousness or discomfort instigated by the autonomic nervous  system.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like emotional labor is going anywhere anytime soon; for every person who couldn’t care less about how happy their server is, there’s an angry old man on Red Lobster’s Facebook page complaining about their rude waiter. As a way to quell the negative psychological backlash of emotional work, Penn State organizational psychologist Alicia Grandey says that emotional labor should be abolished. Instead, she argues, greater onus should be placed on organizations, managers, and even customers to foster positive workplace environments and an authentically happy employees. What a concept, right?

 

Joey Tribbiani, Exchange Theorist

Phoebe: I just found a selfless good deed; I went to the park and let a bee sting me.

Joey: How is that a good deed?

Phoebe: Because now the bee gets to look tough in front of his bee friends. The bee is happy and I am not.

Joey: Now you know the bee probably died when he stung you?

Phoebe: Dammit!

What does it mean to be truly selfless? To offer one’s self up entirely without any expectation of compensation or recompense? In the above clip from the seminal NBC sitcom Friends, protagonists Phoebe and Joey engage in a heated social-philosophical debate about the morality of doing good deeds. Joey, having accepted a job co-hosting a PBS telethon and acknowledging that doing so is good for his career, purports that there is no truly selfless good deed, and that through even our most altruistic endeavors,  we stand to “gain” something in the form of feeling good about ourselves.

This cost/benefit analysis of social interactions hearkens back to the late 1950’s when sociologist George Homans published “Social Behavior as Exchange”. In this piece Homans outlined a theory of social interactions heavily influenced by behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner’s Operant Conditioning. In the same vein as Skinner, Homans believed all human interactions were a matter of seeking rewards; the more rewarding an action seem, the more likely we are to perform that action. Similarly, the more often an action results in a reward, the more likely we are to repeat that action. In this episode of Friends, the bolstering of Joey’s acting career by taking the gig at PBS would be the reward for his actions that would drive him to work a long shift doing work he otherwise would not do.

Rewards do not come without a cost, however. In “Social Behavior as Exchange” Homans also outlined a concept he called “distributive justice” to describe how we mediate these costs. To Homans, each party to an exchange must feel as though they are not paying too high a cost relative to the reward they hope to gain. In this sense, when we perform a good deed, Homans would say that we will only perform that deed insofar as whatever we offer up does not outweigh the feelings of altruism we get in return. In Joey’s case, would he have still hosted the telethon if he was not being paid to do so in addition to the promise that it would make his acting career more successful? Would he still take the job if he was asked to make a $50,000 contribution in addition to hosting?

Even with Homan’s rationalized model of social interaction in mind, how do we account for actions where the costs to the individual may seem so absurdly out of proportion to their perceived gains? Take for example the late Nintendo president Satoru Iwata who halved his salary after revenues dipped by 8.1 percent back in 2013; as some of the commenters on this article have noted, he could just as easily cut hours or sacked employees to make up for the loss at a much lower cost to himself. Was staying in high regard among his employees and investors truly enough of a “reward” to keep him from taking other actions?

Modern science has evidenced that a mere cost/benefit analysis may not be able to describe all social interactions. Some studies suggest that variations in geneology that affect our dopamine receptors can make us more or less altruistic. Others show that prosocial spending, both personal and federal, results in greater feelings of happiness and wellbeing.

Holmans himself acknowledged that his model could not account for “non-rational” exchanges with little perceivable gains; among them he listed pride, greed, and altruism. To quote Homans, “all we impute to [individuals] in the way of rationality is that they know enough to come in our of the rain unless they enjoy getting wet” (Appelrouth and Edles, 2008). Perhaps Joey’s pursuit of fame and fortune at any means necessary has obfuscated his ability to perceive the non-rational selflessness that Phoebe purports, but that’s a story for another time.

 

The Utility of “Hip” Consumerism and the Simmelian Fashionability of Netflix and Chill

“From the fact that fashion as such can never be generally in vogue, the individual derives the satisfaction of knowing that as adopted by him it still represents something special and striking, while at the same time he feels inwardly supported by a set of persons who are striving for the same thing, not as in the case of other social satisfactions, by a set actually doing the same thing.” – Georg Simmel, Fashion, 1904


Have you ever seen a sponsored post on Facebook misusing a meme so badly that it made your eyes roll so far back into your head that you could see your brain cells dying? Or have you ever basked in the musty irony of walking by a Hot Topic in the mall and seeing a re-print of a vintage Bad Brains t-shirt selling for thirty dollars? The ham-fisted execution of counter or sub cultural artifacts by big wig corporate marketing experts may seem hilariously misguided to some of us, but despite how #woke we think we may be, hip advertising is much more prolific than we give it credit for.

All of you #hip #teens should tweet us your #onfleek #emojis

All of you #hip #teens should tweet us your #onfleek #emojis

Decoding the consumer habits of young people is a timeless question that is again rearing its ugly head as marketing strategists try to wrap their head around “the millenials.” The Millenials, or Gen Y, is officially defined as the number of people born between 1983 and 1992, and currently stands at about 77 million strong. Though concrete numbers are hard to come by, this generation is perceived to have a buying power that surmounts even that of the baby boomers, so getting ahead of the curve in regard to finding out how millennials spend  their money and where is becoming a lucrative endeavor.

Appealing to “the young folk” is certainly  not a new concept by any means. Usually marked by the 1960’s and the rise of strong, counter cultural social movements, advertising towards the latter half of the 20th century have focused their attention on marketing products as new and mold-breaking, rather than sterile or conservative. Though some historical accounts of the decade imply that advertisers were leeching off of the hedonistic vagabond mentality to push products, an implied directionality that author Abe Peck calls the move “from counterculture to over-the-counter culture,” others argue that a desire for more youthful, relatable advertising had been festering since the 1950’s [1]. In his 1997 publication The Conquest of Cool, author Thomas Frank says that most Americans, even before the 1960’s, felt frustratingly unrepresented by advertisements encouraging the white picket fences and white collar life that companies were selling them. “Never has advertising been so unwilling to acknowledge the myriad petty frustrations, the anger, the fear that make up so much of daily existence , consuming and otherwise,” says Frank. “Never has it insisted so dogmatically on such an abstractly glowing vision of American life. And never has it been so vulnerable to mockery”[2].

Nowadays it may be hard not to think of CBS or Columbia Records as "The Man", but circa 1967, they weren't your dads old record company (or so they wanted you to think).

Nowadays it may be hard not to think of CBS or Columbia Records as “The Man”, but circa 1967, they weren’t your dads old record company (or so they wanted you to think).

Even during the latter half of the 19th century, almost 100 years before the percieved congregation of what is hip and what is marketable, philosophers like Immanuel Kant and Fredrich Nietszche were postulating the role of “the aesthetic” and fashion as a tool of social unification.  Aesthetic philosopher Georg Simmel, drawing from the works of Kant, understood the utility of the fashionable and trendy, not only as a method of personal expression, but as a method of unity. For Simmel, there was a duality to fashion in that it allows us to express something deviant and personal while at the same time allowing us to feel a sense of community or belonging with those that share our fashion sense. That is, as we differentiate ourselves, we have a more obvious, visual way to identify others like us. In this context, a Simmelian explanation of fashion as something that is satisfying for how unique it is means advertising that emphasizes how individual and unique you’ll be for consuming a mass produced product not only makes sense to producers, but is something that is desired by consumers. You’re still awarded a sense of individuality and edginess, but without running the risk of negative backlash. In a Simmelian context, mass media, advertising, and the presence of branding on social media gives us instantaneous access to a breadth of new, fashionable concepts to draw inspiration from; even better, it imposes on us a bevy of objects and services to buy through which we can broadcast our new found individuality with others that are individuals just like us.

Whereas before advertisements appealed to consumers’ individuality by encouraging them to join the pepsi generation or fight the corporate machine by buying a Subaru Impreza, marketing teams can forego all of the grunt work of finding the next  big thing to capitalize because millennials have found it for them; memes. Instigated without much reason or notice, memes are usually thrust forth from the dregs of the internet like 4chan, Reddit, or Twitter and into the public sphere. What was once perceived as something unique to a small group becomes poked, prodded, and rationalized until it eventually gets formulaically explained on KnowYourMeme, or even better, gets its own write up on Business Insider. Much like Simmel’s notion of fashion, memes are dragged forth from the isolated few that are meant to enjoy it and splayed so widely across the internet that you can’t help but know what a lolcat is or wonder who was lying to this guy.

20 Minutes into The Commodification of Youth Culture for the Purpose of Generating Surplus Capital and they give you this look

20 Minutes into The Commodification of Youth Culture for the Purpose of Generating Surplus Capital and Chill and they give you this look

The idea of brands staking their profits and the livelihood of their employees on transient, viral social media phenomenon may sound crazy, but it’s not nearly as crazy as the fact that it’s working. According to a group of 1300 millennials surveyed by Elite Daily, best known as the premiere slimy click bait watering hole for millennials, 62% of those surveyed said they were more likely to purchase a product from a brand with a strong social media presence. 33% said they rely on social media sources for information about products compared to 3% who trusted TV or Print media advertisements. Perhaps more interestingly, 43% said they valued authenticity when consuming news or company information. Could the perception be that a “hip”, social media-centric advertisement gambit is being perceived as authentic?

Memes encapsulate the duality of Simmelian fashion and aesthetic; they’re the congregation of the nuance and insularity of an inside joke and the exponential proliferation of that which is in vogue to create a beast that is both personal and communal. They are an inside joke that can only be

They've become self-aware.

They’ve become self-aware.

understood if you know the formula — and everyone knows the formula.

And just as Simmel posited in Fashion, the popularization of what is fashionable is ultimately its undoing. As Simmel states in Fashion, “the very character of fashion demands that it should be exercised only by a portion of the given group… as fashion spreads, it gradually goes to its doom.”  Just as fashion trends emerge, rise, and then nosedive into obscurity like the candle that burns twice as bright, so too memes have a dismal shelf life, as evidenced by this research investigating the temporal dynamics of 150 different memes. But fret not, because for every meme that gains a bit of traction, there is sure to be a marketing intern somewhere out there ready to run it into the ground.

 

[1]Abe Peck, Uncovering the Sixties: The Life and Times of the Underground Press (New York: Pantheon, 1985), pp. 164-165.

[2]Thomas Frank. The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), pp. 48

 

The Lazy Profundities of the “Good Old Days” Mentality

Remember the good old days when you'd go to a dinner party and have enthralling, heated debates about how old Barbra Streisand was? Yeah, me neither.

Remember the good old days when you’d go to a dinner party and have enthralling, heated debates about how old Barbra Streisand was? Yeah, me neither.

If you’ve spent more than 5 minutes wading through the annals of internet Op-Ed’s you’ve seen this sentiment restated time and time again; “The internet and smartphones are ruining our lives! No one knows how to connect anymore! I have the personality of a sleeve of stale saltines and never left my home town!” Without a single tinge of contradiction, people everywhere are taking to the internet to talk about how the internet is ruining interpersonal communication. Political cartoons like those shown to the left are being published in droves, prompting hundreds to share them via Twitter, Facebook, and probably MySpace if the internet prowess of these individuals is any indicator. There is a proverbial gold rush in terms of ad revenue and site traffic to be garnered from creating these “profound” glimpses into the isolationist tendencies of millennials, but do they really carry any  weight?

If the main thrust of these comics is to say that people are becoming more isolated, there is little evidence to back up that claim. One of the most popularly cited data sets to support this claim, a 2006 study titled Social Isolation In America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks Over Two Decades, purported that social isolation has been rising in the United States over the past two years, citing the disintegration of local kinship circles as a major cause. Many have taken this to mean that the internet and mobile technology has pushed people into social isolation, but a 2009 follow-up report by the PEW Research Center reported that changes in self-assessed feelings of social isolation have been “small-to-modest” since 1985. If technology is truly the crux of social isolation, then why is it that the popularization of the internet and mobile communication hasn’t caused a greater increase in feelings of social isolation?

As it turns out, social isolation and a breakdown of local kinship is a phenomenon that has been predicted by sociologists for at least a century. Most notably, in his 1893 piece Division of Labor In Society, french Sociologist Émilie Durkheim hypothesized that the advent of Industrialization and Modernity would cause a paradigm shift in how individuals socialize with others in their society. He believed that as cultures industrialized and began to divide individuals into specialized units of labor, our ties to others would be less defined by close, familial relationships and more prominently

"Cell phones are bad. The internet is liberal propaganda. Fire is scary."

“Cell phones are bad. The internet is liberal propaganda. Fire is scary.”

would be rational ties, integral to upholding the whole of society.

With this in mind, is it that far fetched to say that personal ties are subject to dissolution regardless of how much time we spend on our phones? Or is it more likely that long workdays, a more specialized work force, and a globalized economy that has greatly expanded our scope from small, territorial communities to vast interconnected webs of goods and services means we’ve had to adopt a looser, less densely  connected group of immediate companions?

Better yet, why is it that these two forms of communication can’t co-exist in some capacity? Why is every cranky doodler on the internet is convinced that just because I can google every banal thought that pops into my head and peruse pages and pages of cute dog pictures that I somehow have lost the capacity to turn to the person sitting next to me and say “hey, look at this cute dog picture” or “the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell”?

If anything, perpetual interconnectedness through the internet and mobile devices allows us not only to tap into the basal, familial relationships that Durkheim outlined in Division of Labor in Society. We now have an unprecedented virtual realm through which we can emulate, and perhaps perfect, social circles that already exist in the real world and even satisfy some personal moralistic cravings that may not be met by the people in our immediate vicinity. Even better, through realizing the capacity of the internet to create minute variances in the social convictions that already exist, there is a reciprocity between the societies we create on the internet and those that we experience in the physical world; we can take the social cues and morals that we learn through the internet and adapt them.

Perhaps a more accurate representation of how smartphones may fit into your boring dinner party conversations.

Perhaps a more accurate representation of how smartphones may fit into your boring dinner party conversations.

 

 

On Housing First, Bootstrap Mythos, and Suplexing Ronald Reagan

If I were a Ruler for a day I would devote all of modern science towards creating a way to resurrect the dead so I could german suplex Ronald Reagan. At least those would be my pre-lunch plans. Then, while they were busy erecting a solid gold statue of me breaking Ronny’s back, I would get to work on the real stuff.

If given a week to rule I would probably formulate a comprehensive base wage plan involving job placement and skill training expenses, food expenses, and housing expenses; but for the sake of brevity, and assuming I spent all morning on my ruling day beating up on Ronald Reagan, I would focus on housing and homelessness, and moreso, instituting a federal “housing first” program to eliminate homelessness.

Federal Assistance is basically a four letter word in within the American gnosis. Even to the “compassionate”, “liberal” American Left, a need for federal cash, housing, or food assistance is seen as a direct indicator of the character or integrity of those who use these systems. This point is perhaps most evident when looking at the backhandedly named Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act proposed by former president Bill Clinton in 1996, a bill which Clinton said would “end welfare as we [knew] it.” I could talk about my qualms with Clinton and PRWORA until I’m blue in the face, but that’s a post for another day. My point is simply that at both sides of the narrow American political spectrum, spending money to actually help people is thoughtcrime.

And to a certain extent, that’s understandable. As of 2012, some  members of the Interstate Agency Council on Homelessness have estimated that it would cost about $20 billion annually over the course of 10 years to completely eradicate homelessness by 2016. $20 billion dollars is a lot of freaking money, right? At first glance, sure, but when put into perspective, that number seems much less outlandish.

The Cost of Ending Homelessness

As illustrated here, $20 billion is about as much as Americans will spend on Christmas decorations each year. Some food for thought the next time you’re considering buying that inflatable-singing-snowman-riding-in-a-candy-painted-el-camino for your front yard.

To justify spending $20 billion on any one thing to the American public is an uphill battle in and of itself, but compound that with demonizing public perceptions of federal welfare systems creates a never ending series of suppositions that asks “do these people really deserve our help?” and a string of hypothetical situations involving all of the devious ways in which those receiving financial aid could possibly be swindling “the system”.

Are our cultural priorities really so fucked that we’d sooner assume that federal assistance would be completely wasted on the populations they serve rather than give them the benefit of the doubt? And are we so steadfast to cling to this notion of welfare leeches and high roller homeless people that we’d keep it from instituting programs that could help combat these issues?

Courtesy of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. Most notable here is the number of beds available in safe havens – shelters specifically designed to house the mentally ill. Safe havens are specifically designed to house the mentally ill and have a maximum count of 25 beds per facility. These numbers therefore suggest that there are only about 88 emergency shelters specifically for the mentally ill nationwide.

The mythos of the undeserving, lazy homeless is one that is continually and demonstrably shattered by statistical analysis. We’ve known for years that the homeless population in the United States is often wrought with mental illness and in many cases chronically homeless adults have debilitating mental health problems that complicate their ability to transition out of homelessness. Moreso, data collected by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for their 2013 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report suggests that about 23 percent of all homeless people were under the age of 18 in 2013. Even if we concede and (foolishly) assume that all homeless people over the 18 are capable and available for full time work and thereby capable of affording their own housing, that still leaves over 150,000 homeless Americans who couldn’t possibly hope to rise out of the conditions they’ve been placed in.

It is clear that programs that put the onus on the homeless to rise above their own insurmountable conditions do not work. As a public we continually fail the people who need our help the most by falling back on tired rhetoric and shuttering every time we hear the phrase “tax raises”. American apathy to homelessness and the conditions that perpetuate it aren’t just callous; they are violent.

As the omniscient demigod of the world my plan for eliminating homelessness would closely resemble the Ten Year Plan outlined by the National Alliance to End Homelessness in 2000. It’s central tenants are simple:

Plan for Outcomes: Stop treating the homeless as a homogeneous, blanketed entity. At the state and municipal level we should be identifying which populations are most susceptible to homelessness in those areas and creating individualized plans to give these populations the utilities that are going to help them most.

Close the Front Door: Actually hold poverty prevention programs accountable for the outcomes of their clients. Again, this is a point I could on for days and days (and days and days and days…), but federal welfare programs are failing the people they are intended to help by emphasizing work first models and dropping people from programs for the sake of showing “better” unemployment statistics.  We need cash, food, and housing assistance that stops fast tracking people from financial crises to homelessness for the sake of spending less money.

Open the Back Door: Develop better, more permanent solutions to helping people transition out of homelessness. We know that a good percentage of homeless people are chronically homeless, meaning they are either homeless for extended periods of time or are frequently becoming homeless after short periods of having shelter. I’d propose a “housing first” model that not only strengthens the presence of government subsidized housing structures, but provides wraparound case management  services to its tenants to help with job placement, vocational training, or transition into other government programs suited for individuals with debilitating mental and physical health conditions.

Build the Infrastructure: Use the abolition of homelessness to create a dialogue about the cultural and economic structures that cause it in the first place. We must start a dialogue about the role of a living or base wage, an overall lack of affordable housing, and the inadequacy of additional, more specialized programs for those who need them.

 

 
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