21st Century Poor Laws

NYC Homeless Shelters to Be “Less Inviting

By A. G. Moore 9/9/2013

Women at Mealtime in St. Pancras Workhouse, London
 Author Unknown 1911 , Wikimedia Commons public domain

According to an article that appeared in yesterday’s New York Times, the Bloomberg Administration decided in 2004 to “make the Shelter System less inviting“. The rich, it seems, are trying to discourage the poor from being hungry and homeless. One would think the poor already have enough to discourage them; increasing their anxiety and distress is a lot like treating hypothermia with an ice bath.

The rich have always struggled with the problem of the poor, with the presence of an underclass that is pesky and yet essential to good living–how else will houses be cleaned, factories staffed, dinners prepared? It is clear to those who own stuff, that a certain number of have-nots are necessary to maintain a decent lifestyle. It’s also clear that the number available for these chores must be greater than the quantity actually needed to perform labor. That’s because excess workers exert a downward pressure on wages. Supply and demand: if many people compete for the same job it means those who want to work are obliged to ask less for their efforts–or they won’t gain employment.

While the system of excess labor produces the desired effect of services provided at low cost, it also yields an unpleasant consequence: unused labor–“losers” in the employment lottery–who become poor. These unsuccessful job-seekers have no income with which to acquire the basic necessities of life: food, shelter, medical care.

Ahh, those pesky poor. Always there, always a threat to the employed, to those who must worry that someone more desperate, more hungry will take their precious jobs. Even as the workers’ low wages force accommodations like food stamps and shelter living, the fear of worse anchors them to their jobs.

Michael Bloomberg and those who share his view of the poor recognize that the equipoise between haves and have-nots will not stand if the poor–that is, those without jobs–are able to achieve a basic standard of living without working. Those who are not employed must be made to suffer so wretchedly that their lot is unendurable. Wage earners must fear falling into the desperate category called “poor”, because this will mean no shelter, no food.

In the view of many (see Ayn Rand), this is not hard-hearted; it is essential to social stability and progress.

The poor will always be with us. They will be with us because we need them. They are the glue that holds the economic system together. Without the poor there would be no incentive for the employed to work ever-longer hours, to accept wages that do not minimally meet needs, to forgo benefits such as insurance and a pension.

In case at this point you are thinking my argument is overblown, think for a moment about the concept of full employment: This is a term used by economists to describes the “ideal” rate of unemployment. Milton Friedman spoke of a “natural rate of unemployment”. Subsequent economists have settled on an alternate phrase: “Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment (NAIRU)”. What each of these terms, and many others like them, intend to signify is that unemployment is a necessary and permanent part of a stable, profit-incentived economy.

People who call the shots, the power-brokers in society, have decided that a certain percent of the population will always be scrambling for work. The poor will always be with us.

In this context, Bloomberg’s avowed intention to disincentivize poverty appears Machiavellian. He knows better. He knows what people are paid and how hard it is to find work. He runs a global media empire dedicated to business analysis. If Michael Bloomberg doesn’t understand the structural relationship between wages, employment and poverty, then who does?

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