Yesterday a Democratic friend of mine emailed me in part: “There is a big constituency of poor people who are just not making it at all.” This is one of the American Left’s conventional dogmas — that there is some vast ocean of descamisados out there waiting to be mobilized into a political force that will sweep away all those nasty uncaring conservatives.
I laugh when I hear or read things like this, because — unlike most Americans — I know what real poverty looks like. I have lived in poor countries. I’ve seen the shantytowns that surround Caracas and the acres of concrete Stalinist shitboxes that ring Eastern European cities; I’ve played scoppa with rural peasants in Southern Italy who are worn out from toil at forty.
We have nothing like that here. Our poor people are fat. They have too much to eat. They have indoor plumbing and houses and cars and televisions. Real poverty no longer exists in the U.S. at any level above statistical noise, and hasn’t since civilization reached the last pockets of the Appalachians during my childhood.
This has political consequences. Mainly, that you can’t get American ‘poor’ people angry enough about their economic situation to make a voting bloc or a movement out of them. In fact, in the U.S. the poor are more conservative than the rich. American lefties think this is because the poor suffer from anti-revolutionary false consciousness, but this is exactly the kind of patronizing piffle that just lost lefties the 2004 elections. The truth is that in their calculus of their own interests, other things are more important to the American poor than bringing down the bloated plutocrats. In this particular election, those other things included supporting the liberation of Iraq and opposing gay marriage.
Believing that poverty is a live political issue is a form of self-delusion by elite liberals for which conservatives should be very grateful — it leads liberals into vast wastes of effort. But it isn’t just liberals who get taken in. A conservative friend who was in on the email discussion said to me, in effect, “But what about the homeless?”. His argument was that homeless people are America’s ‘real’ poor, and he has a point. The trouble with taking that argument any further is that there are too few homeless people to have any effect on politics other than as an emotive issue that wealthy white activists can flog to make themselves feel more virtuous.
And there will never be a politically significant homeless population in the U.S., for simple and obvious climactic reasons. Over much of the U.S., if you can’t find shelter, winter exposure will kill you fairly quickly. On the coasts you need to be south of about latitude 40 for survivability. The winter-kill zone reaches further south in mid-continent. There’s a summer-kill zone, too, that includes a lot of the Southwest.
If you can’t pay for a roof over your head, you have either build one or borrow one somewhere that the owners aren’t around to object. Wigwams would be conspicuous even if homeless people knew enough woodscraft to build them, so building is largely out. In general, finding a sheltered space to sleep where nobody will hassle you is quite difficult outside of large cities and not easy even inside them.
To check this theory, I went and looked for homeless population counts on the web. Leaving out the most obvious noise — figures pulled out of thin air by advocacy organizations with a drive to inflate them — I found almost no hard numbers.
Yes, you get people throwing around figures in the two million range. They’re bullshit. If we had that many homeless it would have obvious consequences we’re not seeing. Like, corpses littering the streets of Philadelphia on January mornings.
One reference said San Francisco, which has a reputation for a particularly large and visible homeless population, counted 4,535 in December 2003. In 2003, the New York city government estimated 1,560 people sleeping on the streets in Manhattan (at latitude 41 Manhattan is well into the winter-kill zone). I recall Philadelphia counting 3,500 a few years back. That’s numbers 1, 14 and 5 of the nation’s fifteen largest cities by population. Extrapolating from these, I’d bet the nationwide homeless count is almost certainly less than 40K, probably less than 20K.
Which brings me back to my original contention that real poverty is statistical noise in the U.S. Even if the homeless population were an order of magnitude larger than I’m estimating, you cannot build a political base out of 400K people in a nation of 300 million. There’s no electoral traction in one tenth of one percent, especially when most of the rest of the country has more or less correctly written off the homeless as largely being composed of addicts and the mentally ill.
Americans aren’t stupid. They know there has been genuine, large-scale poverty in this country’s relatively recent past — the folk memory of the Great Depression is still with us. They know there are lots of places in the world where the plight of the poor is still a genuine problem today. But that contrast only makes the posturing of today’s self-designated advocates for the American “poor” look more like a form of careerism, moral vanity or one-upmanship. Which, in most cases, is exactly what it is.
UPDATE: Supporting evidence for the nonexistence of real poverty in the U.S. here. Some commenters pointed out that my estimate of homelesness may be low because two of my three baseline cities are in the winter-kill zone. The main point, though, is that the homeless population is not within an order of magnitude of the numbers needed to have an an electoral impact.