While on a late night jog up to the Capitol last Wednesday, I decided to go toward the Monona Terrace, so I turned off of Main Street and on to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. As I ran, I noticed immediately a countless number of homeless men and women asleep beneath the overhangs of City Hall. This encounter showcased the sharpest of inequality along with a stinging irony. Here, on a street named after a man who devoted his life to the war against inequality lay men and women asleep beneath an edifice which houses the very fabric of the American system, a system that prides itself on equal opportunity and the provision of basic human rights and needs.
For the past 50 years, the homeless population in Madison has been on the rise, peaking in 2008. Though much has been done to curb this display of humanitarian failure, from the perspective of students who frequent the streets of Madison, not much has seemed to change.
Of all the advanced economies in the world, America is home to some of the worst disparities in incomes and opportunities. Last year, the wealthiest one percent of Americans took home 22 percent of the nation’s income. Not only does this inequality breed devastating macroeconomic consequences, but it also fosters strong resentment between classes.
In terms of income distribution and absence of basic needs, American inequality began its upswing 30 years ago due to tax cuts for the rich and relaxed regulations on the financial sector. It has worsened as we have under-invested in infrastructure, education, health care and social safety nets. This rising inequality sustains itself by corroding our political system and democratic governance. What’s worse is that it leads many to adopt an all too popular and completely nefarious view of “deserved poverty” i.e. that those in poverty must have done something to deserve it or otherwise failed to take advantage of surely available and promising opportunities.
Being immersed in a capitalistic society run by profit-driven markets and a defining hyper-consumerist attitude makes it all too easy to forget about the people who need our help the most. Living in plain sight and haunting the political unconscious of American capitalism, the homeless and impoverished of this country – including those who sleep on the cold streets of Madison – are effectively trapped by the impenetrable walls of class.
When writing on the duality of pure, melancholic pity and fearful repulsion in the face of poverty, Herman Melville, author of “Moby Dick” said, “So true it is, and so terrible too, that up to a certain point the thought or sight of misery enlists our best affections; but, in certain special cases, beyond that point it does not…this is owing to the inherent selﬁshness of the human heart. To a sensitive being…when at last it is perceived that such pity cannot lead to effectual succor, common sense bids the soul rid of it.”
In other words, it is easy for us to feel sorry for those around us who suffer a great deal. Though, in many cases, these feelings can bring about lasting change and productive action, the society we live in propagates a much more sinister view – that sympathetic feelings rarely bring about profit and rather represent a fundamental sign of weakness within the individual.
When privileges and rights alike are readily available to us it is easy to forget their true value and even easier to overlook their value to those who are deprived of them. In Madison alone, about 18 percent of the population lives in poverty. By continually allowing our political system to enact legislation which favors a privileged majority rather than a deserving minority, we are allowing the American population to become desensitized to the ever-present poverty of homelessness, a reality for more than 2,000 men and women each night in Madison.
For example, it’s easy for Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to attack the Affordable Care Act, but imagine those in Wisconsin (where close to half a million people are predicted to gain health insurance due to the law) whose families have been without basic preventative care from the start. These families have been forced to live one bad diagnosis away from long-term financial ruin.
This legislation was crafted in an effort to confront the side-effects of a profit-driven healthcare system. While undoubtedly imperfect, it represents the first step in the transformation of American health care.
Now, Cruz has decided instead to read children’s stories on the Senate floor, willfully allowing programs like the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families to lose most, if not all, of their funding due to the government shutdown.
The current level of poverty and homelessness in America, and more specifically in the city of Madison, is an embarrassing representation of our flawed political system and the values it fosters. If we are to continue to pride ourselves on American exceptionalism, first we must care for the weakest and most vulnerable of our society.
Grant Hattenhauer (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freshman majoring in biology.