How Poor People Survive in America

Neoliberal policies in America over the last 30 years have led to massive economic inequalities.

Policies such of tax cuts for the rich and restrictions in welfare spending mean that now even working people on relatively high incomes cannot afford rent in some of the more expensive areas of America, such as California.

As a result, we have a situation where hundreds of thousands of in-work Americans are forced to live in their vehicles in parking lots, as the documentary below explores.

This documentary should be of interest to anyone studying the Global Development Option for A-level sociology.

Homelessness in California

The documentary starts with the case study of one woman who works as a carer and a cleaner and used to live in a very nice house with her husband in California.

The relationship broke down, and she preferred to leave the house and him behind, but her income of $1800 a year meant she simply couldn’t afford to rent anything in her local area, and so she chose to live in her car instead.

She parks in a free parking lot where a charity has provided water, toilets and an outdoor kitchen for use, and it’s most interesting to note that it’s not the State funding this, but charities.

We see a lot of other people in the same situation – working, but living in their vehicles.

Another guy, aged 53, used to work as a computer engineer, working 50 hours a week earning $7000 a month ($80K a year), but he had a burn out and then some heart problems and after 6 months of unemployment benefit and then nothing he burnt through all of his savings and eventually couldn’t afford to live in an apartment anymore.

He now sleeps in the driving seat of his car (which looks very uncomfortable) and does temporary work to try and get back on track.

Homelessness in Richmond, Virginia

Virginia has one of the highest homeless rates in America and this section of the video starts off with a clip of local police evicting a tenant who is behind with the rent at gun point. Entering with guns drawn is standard, the tenant is actually half way through packing and willing to go.

In Virginia, if you’re only five days behind with payment you can have a late payment order made agains you, and you then have a week to pay, and then be evicted and rendered homeless immediately.

We now get to see a guy who has been living in a motel room for 2 years at the cost of $1300 a month, sharing with his partner. He cannot rent because of his past late payment notices – the State keeps a public database of late payments which landlords can search and they tend not to rent out to people with a history of bad debt.

(It’s quite interesting to compare this to the case in the UK, where we seem to have the other extreme, as evidenced in the ‘Nightmare Tenant’s type programmes – where tenants seem to have too many legal rights to stay put while the landlord just soaks up their debt!)

Poverty in the Apalachians

The documentary now moves away from homelessness in cities and focus on poverty in rural America, heading to the Apalachians. It’s often said that the American Dream got lost somewhere along the way in Apalachia.

Apalachia is home to mainly white working class Americans, 80% of whom voted for Trump, and support seems to be unwavering despite the fact that life hasn’t got better for them under his administration.

We witness a family of five who are on benefits and receive around 1200 EU a month to live off (which I think includes food stamps) – this involves the parents eating only one meal a day at the end of the month. They rely on a free food for kids meal truck that hand out food to children in the area.

Lindon B Johnson created food stamps as part of his war on poverty, and to this day 40 million U.S. Citizens still receive them.

We also get to see a Veteran who is retired on 700 EU a month and receives about 650 EU in food stamps, to feed her, her niece and her three children.

Of course they’re all overweight.

Once a month a team of Doctors provides free medical check ups – many people here, like around 20 million Americans, have no medical insurance. The service is very popular! It’s not just Doctors, it’s also dentists.

The scene looks like something out of a war zone – a triage centre.

A more extensive welfare state would help these people

This video will challenge your stereotypes about homeless people – these are all people who are hardworking and want to get ahead but just had bad luck in life which set them on the path to homelessness.

The State in America offers very little assistance to such people – and the fates of these individuals seem to be a good argument for having a more extensive welfare state like we do in Britain which offers support such as free health care and housing benefit for longer periods.

A more socialist solution would simply be to have more state housing – designated not for profit housing in which people can stay, even have it subsidised at cost maybe?!?

Los Angeles – the Homeless Capital of the United States

In the last few years the number of homeless in Los Angeles have risen from 33 000 to 59 000

Here we get to see Elvis, a guy who has a plan to combat the problem of homelessness. He gave up his job (he lives off his partner) and helps those less fortunate.

He builds small wooden cabins which cost $1000 (paid for by donations) – they have window locks and a solar panel to power an alarm and a light – they basically allow people to get a secure night’s sleep.

One of the tiny houses being delivered in LA.

However, they are illegal as the mayor has forbidden him to put them on the sidewalks of the streets, but Elvis carries on regardless.

We get to see a scene where Elvis delivers a cabin to a couple sleeping on the streets, an upset resident calls the police and there is a ‘remove or destroy order’ put on the cabin. They do manage to find a spot for it on private land, but that’s the way it goes in Los Angeles!

The Being Homeless Role Play in Waco Texas

The video finishes with a project in Waco, Texas. Once a month, people come to act out what its like to be homeless for 24 hours – to give them a feel for the reality.

Relevance to A-level sociology

This documentary should be of interest to any student studying the Global Development option – it’s a good illustration of the level of inequality in the United States, one of the richest countries on earth, and shows that even very wealthy countries have pockets of grim poverty and social problems such as homelessness.

Find out more….

The story of how the Los Angeles authorities have prevented Elvis from donating tiny homes is pretty depressing – an example of the State actually preventing a DIY solution to poverty.

You can find out more by reading this article in Tree Hugger, or just searching for ‘Elvis, LA, homeless, tiny house’.

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