Worried about homeless family trends? Blame income inequality

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category icon Editorials, Opinion

We know numbers have a way of dulling the message, but when it comes to the number 80, Camas folks should take note.

This was the number of Camas School District families experiencing homelessness during the 2018-19 school year.

Some slept on couches, relying on the goodwill of friends or relatives for as long as possible. A few slept in their vehicles.

“Hidden in plain sight” is what a 2016 report on the United States’ growing student homelessness crisis called it: “Despite increasing numbers, these students, as well as the school liaisons and state coordinators who support them, report that student homelessness remains an invisible and extremely disruptive problem.”

In Washington, student homelessness is not an issue we can just sweep under the rug and hope it goes away. In fact, according to a 2018 report by the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, about one out of every 25 Washington K-12 students experienced homelessness during the 2017-18 school year. In areas with high housing costs, such as Seattle, those numbers jumped to one in 13 students.

In Camas, there are roughly 4,800 households with children. The average household income of those families is $120,000. And yet 80 families have to worry every single day about where they and their children are going to sleep that night.

The school district established its Family-Community Resource Center in 2018 and hired a program director to help these families and others struggling to make ends meet find the resources they need, including clothing, shoes, toiletries, school supplies and emergency food.

The resource center and its director are doing good work in the Camas School District, but the district alone cannot solve this crisis.

We have to wrap our minds around what caused the current housing crisis. In a November 2018 interview with U.S. News & World Report, Chris Reykdal, Washington’s superintendent of public instruction, said his office was trying to cope with the growing number of Washington K-12 families experiencing homelessness.

“The root cause issues, of course, are much bigger, and I would love to see our state take on a more significant role in trying to figure out housing affordability,” Reykdal said. “I don’t necessarily have the right model in my mind, but I know you have to address housing affordability and income inequality if you’re going to address (student homelessness).”

Addressing income inequality is key. In this country, the gap between the mega-wealthy and pretty much everyone else has ballooned to astronomical proportions since we started voting for “trickle-down” politicians in the early 1980s.

According to “Since 1979, the before-tax incomes of the top 1 percent of America’s households have increased more than seven times faster than the bottom 20 percent incomes.”

What’s more: “Over the past five decades, the top 1 percent of American earners have nearly doubled their share of national income. Meanwhile … an estimated 43.5 percent of the total U.S. population are either poor or low-income.”

We can’t sustain this level of inequality without some pretty drastic consequences for everyone but the extremely wealthy. We need to stop believing people like President Donald Trump who place the blame on the shoulders of those who have the least and realize that decades of cutting corporate income tax rates hasn’t ever resulted in that promised flow of “trickle down” money for the middle class. Instead, those at the top have become richer while the rest of us struggled to keep up with rising housing costs.

Hope may be on the horizon. Several progressives in the 2020 presidential race have been outspoken about closing the income inequality gap and helping the middle class instead of the wealthiest 1 percent.

Some, such as Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Elizabeth Warren — a former law school professor who specialized in bankruptcy law — are proposing a “wealth tax” on the billionaire class.

It’s too early to say how the voters in this country will react to progressive proposals like Warren’s, but one thing is for sure: if we stay our current course, the gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” will keep expanding, the number of people experiencing homelessness will keep climbing and families struggling to afford housing will continue to suffer.