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  • Carolyn L. Baker

Anti-Poverty War STILL needed on Los Angeles Skid Row

It’s been fifty-five years since Ridgeley Cummings wrote this article in the Los Angeles Free Press wherein he suggested that readers “drive, don’t walk, down East 5th St. from Alameda to Main Streets and glimpse the shocking conditions in which our skid row unfortunates exist.”

Fast forward to today and Skid Row is now “home” to thousands of individuals experiencing long-term homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse, untreated mental health conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorders, major depression, and have been arrested and recently released from incarceration. All this despite a plethora of services and service providers attempting to ameliorate the socio/economic inequality just a stone’s throw away from the heights of Los Angeles culture — the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Ahmanson Theater, and Mark Taper Forum. In 2020, Skid Row is, more than ever, Los Angeles’ shame. And beyond the moral imperative, individuals experiencing long-term homelessness use the most expensive emergency healthcare services to the great expense of public healthcare resources.

While there is some diversity of age, ethnicity, and gender among the short-term residents of Skid Row, most of the residents are people of color who are disproportionately represented among those experiencing homelessness, with blacks and Native Americans experiencing the highest rates among those groups. This disparity is the result of centuries of discrimination in housing, criminal justice, child welfare, and education. When Cummings wrote this article in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson envisioned a "Great Society" and declared a "War on Poverty”, the centerpiece of the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which created an Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) to oversee a variety of community-based anti-poverty programs. Yet at the same time, the regulatory practices, labor and wage policies, and tax structure ensured the distinct winners and losers would remain perpetually the same. The irony of this was best described by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., when he said “Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.”

As a child of the 1950s, I remember when the nation made it a priority to help disadvantaged Americans, through welfare programs such as the GI Bill and FHA mortgage loans. As an adult, I was surprised to find out people of color were, for the most part, denied access to these programs. Today's extreme racial wealth gap is the most obvious result of the distribution of these entitlements. I also remember hearing the phrase, “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” as part of my sociopolitical upbringing about self-reliance. Many people I know still evoke the bootstrap phrase when they want to argue against social programs, citing corrupt, undeserving “others” who will only take advantage of the system while taking money from “we” hardworking taxpayers. The resulting safety net cutbacks, due to this bootstraps mentality, have made it especially difficult for low-income individuals to access food and healthcare benefits. Today, Medicaid receives about half the amount corporations receive each year from an assorted variety of corporate “incentives.” And Supplemental Security Income (SSI), the federal program for individuals with disabilities, receives less funding than American businesses are given in direct federal aid.

Since this article was first written, we’ve had the War on Poverty... and poverty has won. The anti-poverty programs of the Great Society have become, more accurately, anti-poor as policy changes over the past 50+ years continually whittled away the social safety net. Racism and classism have broken the country’s social compact and stunted the development of nearly every institution crucial for a healthy society. This includes organized labor, public education, wage and hour standards, and job-based health and retirement security.

So yes, the Anti-Poverty War is STILL Needed on Skid Row. But rather than addressing the “downstream” race and class disparities it lays bare, let’s look “upstream” to confront programs and policies that, more than half a century later, still cause and extend these socio/economic injustices.

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