I glided my car off of the 10 freeway, a California interstate that crosses Los Angeles from west to east, to find a scraggly old man wearing a filthy coat and clutching a tattered cardboard sign that read: Will Work For Housing. He stood at the freeway exit, about three cars ahead of me.
When the signal light turned green, the guy in the BMW SUV in front of me stuck his head out and screeched at the top of his lungs toward the homeless man, "Get a job you lazy SOB!" The SUV tires practically burned rubber before the homeless man could fully understand what happened.
For those of us living in the Los Angeles region, what many refer to as the Homeless Capital of America, such outbursts of anger are not infrequent. After a few decades of the escalation of homelessness in this country, some hardworking people feel resentful at people who take advantage of our nation's social welfare system. Especially when the roots of this country are founded on a Puritan culture that embraces the mantra: there is no such thing as a free ride.
But to simply scream at a person entrenched in extreme poverty to get a job will not end homelessness for that man standing at the freeway off-ramp.
Here's why. In Los Angeles, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment, as of May 2011, is $1,315 per month. Many housing experts believe that in order for a person to be able to pay for housed-living (such as food, utilities, transportation and clothing), a person should not pay more than one-third of his monthly income toward rent. That means in Los Angeles, the homeless man standing near the freeway needs to earn $22.76 per hour to afford the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment.
Minimum wage in Los Angeles, however, is only $8 per hour. A person earning this rate could barely pay his rent, and would have nothing for food, utilities or anything else. In other words, he would be sitting in an empty apartment, darkened because of no electricity, and hungry because of not enough income to buy food.
Even if a person paid half of his monthly income toward rent, he would have to find a job that pays $15.17 per hour to afford a Los Angeles apartment.
It doesn't take a mathematician to conclude that this social math just doesn't work.
So, like passionate activists in Northern Africa, the voices from American homeless advocates are rising, calling for a mandatory wage rate that would allow a person to earn enough money to pay for rent. People like Richard R. Troxell, the author of the book, Looking Up at the Bottom Line, are promoting a "Universal Living Wage."
Their message actually reflects a Puritan perspective: full-time work should be rewarded with access to permanent housing. If a person works 40 hours per week, he should have the ability to afford housing.
Critics, however, don't believe in an artificial employment market. Pay rates should be based on a free market's supply-and-demand environment, otherwise businesses will move away from communities that instill mandatory living-wage rates.
But if businesses move to regions where the minimum wage is so low that its low-paid workers have no chance of finding a home affordable enough to rent, then businesses will have a very small talent pool of people.
It used to be that one full-time wage earner in America could support a family of four in a home that the worker actually owns. Today, America's families need at least two wage earners just to be able to rent a one- or two-bedroom apartment.
The odds of that homeless man standing at the freeway off-ramp finding a job at $22.76 per hour (or $47,340 per year) are nearly impossible. Screaming at him to find a job that pays enough to rent an apartment is simply futile.
Ending homelessness in this country means raising the rate of pay for hard-working people, or lowering the rate of rents, or building enough apartments that are affordable to everyone.
My vote is to get that homeless man near the freeway into an affordable apartment first, then help him find a job.
Maybe that man's cardboard sign should read: Will be Housed For Work.
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