The Hole In The Net

Our social safety net has a hole in it. The fibers of the net are
decaying; the hole is getting bigger. More people are falling through,
and the people with the least strength are holding the most of the
weight. Three to four million Americans are homeless according to the
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 5.5% cannot find jobs
according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, and the figure is over
twice that in the 20-24 year old age group, according to the Department
of Education. A very slim minority of these people are sucking off the
system, but the vast majority just had a bad break.
Such is the story of Peter and Megan, as told by author Jonathan Kozol
in his Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Book Award winner Rachel and Her
Children: Homeless Families in America. Peter was a carpenter and she
was a homemaker who raised their five children. They lived in a neat,
working class apartment building in New York City. Peter did
construction for public housing projects, and had a vast array of
technical skills and tools: “I did carpentry. I painted. I could do
wallpapering. I earned a living. We spent Sundays walking with our
children on the beach.” It may sound like this was a happy family,
living the American Dream. Perhaps they were -- they were self
sufficient for all of the 12 years that they had been married, they had
a steady income, a close and loving family, a home, and a chance for
their children to do even better than they had done. Then the fire
struck. They came racing home after hearing the news, only to find that
everything had been destroyed. The children lost their pet dog and cat,
Megan lost her grandmother’s china, but Peter perhaps lost the most: his
tools. Since the fire, he has not had a job, because a carpenter without
tools might as well not have eyes. He explained that for every job he
had, he would add a new tool to his collection. But they all went up in
the blaze. When Kozol first met them, they were living in a welfare
hotel in New York, where they had been living for two years. They can’t
get out because federal assistance programs (better known as welfare)
tell them that their family limit for an apartment is $366 a month --
this with seven family members living in New York City. (In comparison,
that’s about the rock bottom price for a week in a New York City one
room motel.) In their two room “apartment”, the entire place is falling
apart, with crumbling walls, no working toilets, and a stench Kozol
describes as “overpowering.”
A year later, Kozol meets Peter and Megan again. This time they’re
living on the street, and their children have been taken away, all to
different foster homes, because, Peter says “White children are in
demand by the adoption agencies.” The social safety net designed to help
people who are down on their luck: where is it for Peter and Megan, not
to mention their children? And without a safety net, how can we expect
people to fulfill this “American Dream?” Evidently, we can’t. It’s as
good as dead.
Peter and Megan are real people. This is a real story. For as long as
anybody can remember, we’ve been pounded by success stories of the
American Dream. But for every Colin Powell, Lee Iacocca, Bob Dole, or
Arnold Schwartzenegger, there are dozens, if not hundreds of Peters and
Megans. And as long as there are people who want jobs and can’t get
them, as long as children live on the streets because of no fault of
their own, as long as the value of a dollar for the worker keeps
declining, we can’t really say that the American Dream is a reality.
The American Dream doesn’t have a set definition. It used to mean
having a husband who worked and provided for his family, a wife who
raised the children, and for every generation, a chance to do better
than your parents and to have your children do even better than you. But
today a new definition of the dream is in order. It basically comes down
today to the knowledge that if you, as President Clinton says, “work
hard and play by the rules,” you will be able to provide food, clothing,
shelter, medical care, education, and a few pleasures for your family.
First, though, society needs to get its proverbial house in order. As a
society we need