Meeting Americas Three Basic Needs

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I see one third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad and ill-nourished.

President Franklin Roosevelt, January 20, 1937 Second Address

Almost every American can rattle off the three basic human needs – food, clothing and shelter. As a nation, how are we doing in meeting those needs?

Are The Poor Meeting The Three Basic Needs?

We have obviously come a long way since that day eighty-six years ago, when our nation was in the depths of the Great Depression. Today, upper- and middle-class Americans are doing quite well. It would also be fair to say that the basic needs of the working class are basically being met as well.

But what about the poor and near-poor – the quarter of all Americans living below or just above the poverty line? Are these folks adequately fed, clothed and sheltered? You know the answer to that one!

During the Great Depression one-third of all Americans were abjectly poor. Under President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the federal government took strong measures to ameliorate the suffering. Still, widespread poverty has persisted to this day.

Of course, we have made some great strides since the 1930s – most significantly the creation of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and food stamps – but we’re still light years away from guaranteeing all Americans three square meals a day, clothes on their backs, and a roof over their heads.

Although the world’s largest economy, we lag far behind nearly all other relatively rich nations in meeting the three basic needs of our citizens. We can hardly argue that we can’t afford to do this if almost every other wealthy nation manages this feat.

When I was still in high school, I decided to become an economist and solve this problem. Many decades later I wrote a book, The Great American Economy: How Inefficiency Broke It And What We Can Do To Fix It. Almost no one bought the book. I even considered sending a copy to every member of Congress – or at least to the Democrats.

I believed that even if I didn’t have all the answers to how to fix our economy, at least I could explain why it was performing so inefficiently. And now, I have the chutzpah (Yiddish for unmitigated gall) to claim to have the answers to how we can complete the job that President Roosevelt started, finally ensuring that every American would be adequately fed, clothed and sheltered.

Solving The Food Problem

Let us begin by solving the food problem. America arguably has the largest and most efficient   agricultural sector in the world. We can very easily produce enough to feed ourselves and have plenty of food left over to feed tens of millions of people in other countries. Regretfully, the federal government’s Department of Agriculture – and the Congressional committees that oversee it – have stifled our nation’s farming sector.

Let our famers grow as much wheat, corn, soybeans, fruit, vegetables, and other agricultural products as they want, and sell it at whatever prices they can fetch. And whatever the farmers cannot sell, the Department of Agriculture could buy up at market prices – or even higher prices.

What would do we do with all the surplus food that our farmers produce? We ship it to tens of thousands of food pantries all over the nation. Or even better, we make the food stamp program universal to all relatively low-income Americans.  

I live in a relatively affluent Brooklyn neighborhood where the homes sell for over two million dollars. Every Tuesday, there is a five-block line of people with shopping carts waiting hours to get free food. Hopefully, when their turn comes, there will be something left for them.

Think about all the time and effort millions of poor people must spend foraging for food. Think about our Republican friends in Congress who love placing as many barriers as they can to make it as hard as possible for poor people to register for food stamps and other government assistance.

All this, in one of the richest nations in the world! What can we do? Turn our farmers loose and pay them well, and we can wipe out hunger in America overnight!

Solving The Clothing Problem

Moving right along, we can decently clothe every American by providing free clothing to everyone who needs it. How do we do that?

There are clothing thrift shops all over the nation. People bring in clothes they no longer want or need. The federal government could easily subsidize tens of thousands of additional stores to provide free clothing. Anyone who donates clothing would get a substantial tax credit. Yeah, we already do some of that, but the federal government needs to get behind the effort so that every American is decently clothed.

The food and clothing problems are the easiest to solve. But our perennial and growing housing problem is a much tougher nut to crack. Indeed, we can’t even agree how many Americans are homeless, let alone figure out what we can do to put rooves over their heads.

When we count up the number of homeless Americans, we always begin with the usual suspects – the people sleeping in shelters and public spaces, but we usually ignore many others. Our homeless population also includes millions of individuals or families doubling or even tripling up with friends and relatives. Few are counted in censuses of the homeless.

Solving The Housing Problem

Let us begin with the visibly homeless people who are looking for sleep in all the wrong places. Like city sidewalks, public parks, railroad and bus stations, subway cars and stations, and in automobiles and subway tunnels. These are the folks who have the most urgent need for decent housing.

Why is it so much harder to solve our sheltering problem than our food and clothing problems? There are two explanations.

The first goes all the way back to our nation’s original sin – the establishment of slavery in America some five centuries ago. Indeed, even when the slaves were finally freed in the mid-1860s, no one handed over homes to them, or even small plots of land.

To this day, most white Americans would prefer that few or no Black families live near them. This holds true not just in the South, but throughout the good old USA. Indeed, housing segregation was actually legally sanctioned by the federal government during the 1930s.

The second reason why it’s been so hard to provide adequate shelter to all Americans can be traced back to a very radical shift in how cities expanded after World War II from their expansion during the previous 300 years. In this case, it wasn’t just Black families who were excluded from most new suburban developments, but white people who could not afford to buy new homes.

Making matters still worse for all the poor and near-poor living in our nation’s largest cities, widespread gentrification — especially during the last four decades – displaced tens of millions of low-income white and Black people.

Decades before, there had been so-called urban renewal programs in scores of cities, which were dubbed “negro removal programs,” by cynical Black observers. Whole neighborhoods were demolished to make way for luxury condos, fancy boutiques, expensive restaurants and whatever other structures were required by the new residents.

Today, many of the homeless are making the lives of business owners, homeowners, commuters, and just passers-by more difficult – and sometimes even more dangerous. A good number of the homeless end up needing hospitalization, becoming very expensive public burdens. If they can be decently housed – or institutionalized – they would all be much better off, and so would the rest of us.

There are widely varying estimates of the number of homeless people in America. But there is widespread agreement that our nation has an extremely serious shortage of affordable housing.

All across America, especially in the interior and in some large cities, there are large numbers of abandoned homes. Some of the formerly homeless could be employed reconstructing these homes. In addition, there are dozens of decommissioned military facilities which could easily house hundreds of thousands. Some of the homeless – themselves veterans — could be employed in rehabilitating this housing.

In recent decades, the ranks of the homeless has grown quite quickly. In the gentrifying cities, single-room occupancies and tenement apartments have given way to luxury condos. The poor are left with nowhere to go.

This isn’t rocket-science. We will have a growingly serious homeless problem until we build enough affordable housing. But that won’t happen until we are willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done – not just symbolic measures that impact just infinitesimal fractions of the homeless.

You don’t need to be an economist to know we need to guarantee every American adequate food, clothing and shelter. All we need is the national will to fully meet these basic needs.