Abandoning Men: Jill Gets Welfare–Jack Becomes Homeless - Peter Marin - 1991
Our federal welfare system aids mainly women with children and, on occasion, intact families. That means most of the families on the streets have either fallen through cracks in the welfare system or not yet entered it. They will, in the end, have access to some sort of shelter and aid, while it is the single adults who will be left permanently on their own.
I do not mean to diminish the suffering of families, nor to suggest that welfare usually is anything more than a form of indentured pauperism so grim it shames the nation. But it does, in fact, get families off the streets, and that leaves behind, as the long-term homeless, the chronically homeless, single adults, four-fifths of whom are men. Seen that way, homelessness emerges as a problem usually involving what happens to men without money, or men in trouble.
- there are proportionally far more private and public shelters and services available to women.
- women are accustomed to asking for help while men are not, and women make better use of available resources.
- poor families in economic extremis seem to practice a form of triage. Men are released into the streets more readily, while women are kept at home even in the worst of circumstances.
[...]Finally, there is the federal welfare system. I do not think most Americans know how the system works, or how for decades it has actually sent men into the streets, creating male homelessness at the same time it aids women and children.
There are two main programs which provide for Americans in trouble. One is Social Security Insurance, known as SSI. It goes to men and women who clearly are unable for physical or mental reasons to care for themselves. The other is Aid to Families With Dependent Children, or AFDC. It is what we ordinarily call "welfare." Begun early in the century and then expanded and refined during the 1930's and again in the 1960's, it has always been a program meant mainly for women and children and was therefore limited to households headed by women. As long as an adult male remained in the household as husband or father, no aid was forthcoming. Changes in the system last year have modified this somewhat, and males can now be present if they satisfy certain federal guidelines pertaining to work history. But in poor areas and among certain ethnic groups where unemployment runs high, such changes mean little, and the effects of this policy on men remain as devastating as ever.
When it comes to "able-bodied" (and employable) single adults, there is no federal aid whatsoever. Individual states and localities sometimes provide their own aid. But this is usually granted only on a temporary basis or in emergencies. And in those few places were it is available for longer periods, it is almost always so niggardly, so ringed with capricious requirements, that it is of little use to most of those in need.
This combination of approaches not only systematically denies to men any aid as family members or single adults, it means that the aid given to most women deprives men of homes. Given the choice between receiving aid or living with broke or jobless men, what do you think most women with children do? The regulations force men to compete with the state for women. As a woman in New Orleans once told me: "Welfare changes love. If a man don't make more than I get from welfare, I ain't gonna look at him. I can't afford it."
Everywhere in America, money-less men have become ghost-lovers, ghost-fathers, one step ahead of welfare workers they fear will disqualify others for having a male around. In many ghettos or housing projects throughout the nation you now find women and children in their deteriorating welfare apartments, and their companions and fathers in even worse condition on the streets: in gutted apartments and junked cars, denied even the minimal help given the opposite sex.
[...]When men work (or when they go to war -work's most brutal form), we grant them a right to exist. But when work is scarce, or when men are of no economic use, then they become in our eyes not only superfluous, but also a danger. We feel compelled to exile them, to drive them away to shift for themselves in more or less the same way that the Puritans, in their city on a hill, treated sinners and rebels.
[...]We are so used to thinking of ours as a male-dominated society that we lose track of the ways in which some men are perhaps more oppressed than most women. But race and class, as well as gender, play roles in oppression. And while it is true, in general, that men dominate both society and women, in practice is it only certain men who are dominant. Others, usually those from the working class and often darker-skinned, suffer endlessly from forms of isolation and contempt which exceed what many women experience.
The irony at work is that what you find among homeless men, and what lies at the heart of their troubles, is precisely what our cultural myths deny them: a helplessness they cannot overcome on their own. You find a vulnerability, and senses of injury and betrayal, and a despair equal to what we accept without question in women.
[...]Finally, whatever particular griefs men may have experienced on their way to homelessness, there is one last, devastating kind of sorrow all of them share: their sense of betrayal at society's refusal to recognize their need. Most of us -both men as well as women -grow up expecting, deep in our hearts, that when things go terribly wrong someone, from somewhere, will step forward to help us. That this does not happen, that all watch indifferently from the shore as each of us, in isolation, struggles to swim and then sinks, is perhaps the most terrible discovery that anyone in any society can make. When troubled men realize this, as they all do sooner or later, then hope vanishes completely. Despair rings them round; they become what they need not have been: the homeless men we see everywhere around us.
[..]Over the past several years we have slowly, laboriously, begun to confront our prejudices and oppressive practices in relation to women. Unless we now undertake the same kind of project in relation to men in general and homeless men in particular, nothing whatever is going to change. That's as sure as death and taxes and the endless, hidden sorrows of men.
I focused on the part where the system fails men. Read all of it, powerful piece.