Homelessness: A structural issue

Featured Image: A shack from Virginia Wesleyan’s 2017 Shack-a-thon stands by the Batten Center. VWU Flickr | Courtesy

It’s time to shift the blame for homelessness from the individual to American institutions.

The United States has a large homelessness problem, with over 580,000 Americans classified as homeless as of 2020, and our government doesn’t seem too keen on ending it any time soon. 

The problem of homelessness is that it’s often framed around the guise that people experiencing it are financially irresponsible or lazy, and that their situation is ultimately their own fault. 

While there are circumstances where people end up losing it all because of their own decisions, this argument provides an excuse for a defunct social safety net and a disconnect between the government and the governed. It ignores how systemic issues affect all of us. 

Leaving aside the federal minimum wage, which has remained stagnant at $7.25 since 2009, the actual purchasing power earned in an hour’s worth of labor has decreased greatly since the 1970s. This is due to a number of factors, one of the big ones being austerity politics. 

In order to control government spending, policymakers often decide to cut ‘non-essential’ services and raise taxes. These kinds of policies have been documented to raise unemployment and worsen conditions for average people all over the country, but lower inflation. 

When unemployment is high, wages don’t grow because employers can offer lower wages and people are forced to take those jobs to survive. 

Workers are also losing overtime pay, becoming victims of wage theft and receiving less benefits with ‘gig-economy’ jobs like Uber, Doordash and Lyft.

Our government has put more and more focus into lowering inflation at the cost of your pay, your benefits and your livelihood. Inflation as an excuse also manifests itself in product costs for average people.

The cry of inflation has been all we hear on the news as we face price increases in everything from gasoline to cartons of eggs and everything in between. The truth is, at the same time that we see stagnant wages and hear the woes of business owners, the largest corporations are posting record profits. 

The people that own the corporations are growing their wealth while raising our prices and claiming that it’s to match inflation, while our wages have remained the same. 

Billionaires like Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos saw a total increase in their wealth over the pandemic of about $4 trillion. That’s the equivalent of ten months of full-time minimum wage labor from every single person in the United States, spread between 2,365 people at the top. This will undoubtedly only get worse unless we implement policy changes to tax this wealth and ensure that the people working to create it get their fair share.

Many Americans live paycheck to paycheck, meaning that they have no money left month to month after paying expenses like electricity, water, car insurance, food, gas and everything else necessary to survive. 

This means people can’t save money, and won’t be able to make a down payment on a home if they don’t already own one. 

This forces people to rent, which accounts for 36% of households. Not only does renting make you pay for something you’ll never own, rent inflation hit a 40-year high this past January, showing how unrealistic it’s becoming to live on an average salary.

Now at this point you may ask yourself, “How does this connect to homelessness?” 

As prices increase, wages stay stagnant, and as average people lose their own autonomy, they get pushed out of the housing market. What this does is create a society of renters, a society where you don’t own anything and falling into medical debt can put you on the streets. 

Average people like you and me end up bearing the financial burden for conditions imposed on us by the elite, but this continues only if we remain silent. Systemic reform is possible, and the workers of this country can regain our collective bargaining power through direct action.

Aidan Foley ‘26 is majoring in music and enjoys singing in two of Virginia Wesleyan’s choirs. Contact him at adfoley@vwu.edu.

By Aidan Foley