Thursday, August 20, 2009

Homelessness and Ethnicity

I live in an area that is approximately 25 % 'Asian', 30 % 'White', 15 % 'Black', and 30 % "Latino'. Imperfect categories to be sure, but useful enough for the sake of this piece.

It's interesting however that the substantial homeless population - or the visible one - is almost entirely White or Black. This, despite making up only about 50 % of the population in this particular area. I have observed a similar pattern in other areas, as well.

An initial explanation might be simple economics. How do the unemployment rates among the four groups compare ? Well, the short answer is that Asian and White unemployment rates are basically the same, with the Latino rate a couple of points higher, and the rate for Blacks a couple of points higher than that.

Therefore, based on simple economics – i.e., who has the money - one should expect to see a higher rate of Latino homelessness than White, and a similar one for Asians and Whites. But this is not the case.

I base my explanation upon life experience and close contact with various communities as a teacher, as well as a 'mixed' long term partnership.

Simply put - Asian and Latino familial institutions are much stronger, and more extended, than those of Americanized White or Black families. There is greater sense of obligation to each other, so that unemployed, elderly, or decrepit people within the family, receive support and shelter from others.

Rather than framing it as a moral question, it's interesting to think about the roots of this tradition. First of all, in analyzing the situation I have noted that this type of supportive family structure exists with White and Black immigrants from Eastern Europe and Africa. It is strongest within first or second generation immigrant communities, and perhaps reflects rural or pre-capitalist social traditions within the country of origin.

The United States, being the most advanced capitalist country - and the most ruthless - promotes individualism and self-reliance to the extent that it breaks down family structures over a period of generations. This also serves the general framework of capitalism well – a person's productivity becomes their value. People who can't generate profit or consume are worthless in a pure capitalist model. Paying for an mentally ill cousin's apartment, or keeping a less than active relative in the family business, makes sense from the standpoint of family obligation – but not from the standpoint of profit or efficiency.