Wednesday, June 7, 2017


[Here I address the members of the Chittenden County Homeless Alliance, after it's Quarterly Community Meeting, 2017-06-06.]

The Alliance is wide and the Quarterly meeting could not have supported more Alliance people than came. And I am so grateful to those who did. The challenges of planning a meeting to which homeless folks would come and feel safe were met. Enough came and we met leaders. We have introduced the Chittenden County Homeless Alliance to the community of the homeless. We have initiated relationships. What remains is to do the work it takes to help people live in the dignity and safety of their own homes.

That work is intrinsically difficult, because we live in and work in a world where the injustice of unfairly distributed wealth is structural. The economy is healthy enough. It produces enough for everyone's needs to be met. But it does not adequately circulate that wealth. Through the exponential growth of wealth, property ownership, laws that tax investment income at lower rates than wage income, through low tax rates for the wealthy and wages below the minimum needed to survive, the productivity and wealth of the community is channeled into the hands of those who need it least, while those who need it do not have enough. The rhetoric of our society is that those who have deserve and those who do not have do not deserve. The old framing is that if you play the system and bring home the wealth, it is yours, and giving it to the government to spend is a wasteful drag on the economy. The claim, made since the Reagan era, is that wealth is necessary to capitalize the economy, but this is merely self-serving. Without concentrated wealth, there could be distributed wealth, which would benefit far more people, while yet inducing far more economic activity. 

But we know that no one deserves to live in fear of losing their home, no one deserves the trauma of an unstable and unsafe home life. No one deserves for their mental illness to be multiplied by the dangers of living outdoors, no one deserves the hopelessness of a life without productive employment and a place to live. Let us say instead that the wealthiest members of the community have been entrusted with the wealth which represents the productivity of the community, but that that wealth owed to the community, and must be used to bring up the quality of life for every member of the community. Through whatever means. I can think of many. 

I will not belabor my point by making specific proposals. The essential point is this: everything we are trying to do is defeated by the structure of the economy. We are defeated because we worship wealth as our source of personal security, and argue to protect the accumulation of wealth, even when the benefits go to the super wealthy. We are defeated because we admire the super wealthy and try to emulate them, and defer to them when they want more privilege. But the greatest benefit to everyone comes when wealth circulates, when the community has that wealth to spend and when it is spent to meet the needs - housing, education, health, employment - of the people, not when it accumulates. Nothing could be a greater stimulant to the production of wealth than to spend it producing well being. 

And those are our jobs. To produce well being. But the aspiration is at risk. The productive value of our communities continues to be claimed by a few, who grow increasingly impatient with the taxes that pay our salaries. The path we are on takes us to a condition like that of Pakistan or Somalia, lawless places where justice comes from the barrel of a gun, where just to meet needs people wend their way through the alleyways of desperation and violence, and criminal corporate and government greed. People who love democracy and  want to live in peaceful, healthy communities, must challenge the old ways of thinking about wealth. And then demand that our lawmakers change how we treat the accumulation of wealth. So that not only we, but all of our neighbors, will have homes to live in. 

The key notion to  this change is the "normative income". This idea declares that the preferred economic status of every person is in the middle range of  all possible wealth and income. It is a range of incomes defined by their ability to support a family which can pay a reasonable share of taxes, in comfort, with adequate health care, education and housing, It provides enough wealth to allow people to take vacations without fear of losing their homes, and to participate in the economy as fund-holders, but leans against that much wealth that permits a second home (while others are homeless), or to avoid ever needing to take a job.

Public policy would operate to push people toward a normative income. Up from underneath, down from above. Not to make great wealth impossible, but to make great wealth ephemeral, and to make great poverty unnecessary. This public policy would not control incomes, but through incentives and taxation, living wages, sound housing and property policy, free health care, and free education, make wealth accumulation ever more difficult as incomes go up, unnecessary in any person's life plan, and poverty a religious vocation no one needs to choose. This public policy declares huge accumulations of wealth to be as unhealthy and unproductive, as is poverty. 

Wealth bifurcation today is eviscerating the middle class, (that's you) leaving the super poor and the super rich. We cannot do our work as healers in the lives of the unlucky, unwell and unhoused, and have our own lives, while we tolerate structural inequality. The result of structural inequality is structural insecurity, structural violence, and structural poverty. The homeless we met tonight are not poor and out of work by choice. Their fates, and ours, are structural. We must change the structure.

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