Kristof and Collins

In “So Little to Ask For: A Home” Mr. Kristof says President Obama’s plan to end family homelessness is a bargain.  Ms. Collins, in “The Bible Meets the Salamander,” says Tennessee has an idea for a new entry on its list of State Things.  Here’s Mr. Kristof:

One of the people I greatly admire is Khadijah Williams, a young woman who was homeless for much of her childhood.

Khadijah bounced from home to home, shelter to shelter, from the time she was 6. “I can’t count how many times I’ve been forced to move,” she recalls.

“Though school was my salvation, my test scores suffered as a result of missing so much school and having no place to study,” she adds. “I stopped trying to make friends because I was so tired of crying about losing friends.”

Ultimately, Khadijah found a home — because she won a scholarship to Harvard, enabling her to move into a dormitory. Now 25, she’s working for the city government in Washington, D.C., and one of her tasks is helping homeless kids.

But Khadijah’s trajectory is exceptional. The United States has 64,000 families who are homeless, including 123,000 children, and many will be permanently harmed by the experience. We have growing evidence that traumas like homelessness can flood a child’s brain with a stress hormone, cortisol, and impair brain development.

In a year in which there finally is serious talk about inequality, the ultimate poverty is lack of shelter. And the good news is that in the last decade or so, we’ve figured out what works to address it; the problem is not inevitable. The Housing First approach, which gets people quickly into permanent housing and then offers support services to keep them there, seems particularly cost-effective.

Family homelessness is down almost one-fifth since 2010, and veteran homelessness is down much more — two states say they have functionally ended homelessness of veterans.

Another reason for optimism: With almost no fanfare, President Obama’s budget proposal includes $11 billion over 10 years, which he says would end family and youth homelessness. This is a step to end a level of homelessness that just isn’t tolerated in other developed countries.

So if we can have a robust national debate about the way Donald Trump’s campaign manager grabbed a reporter’s arm, let’s also muster a debate about whether candidates will help end family homelessness in America. This goes to the heart of American poverty — and values.

You think addressing family homelessness sounds worthy but unaffordable? To put this Obama budget request in perspective, the average annual sum is only about 1 percent of what we were spending in Afghanistan at the peak.

I’ve been thinking about housing after reading a superb new book, “Evicted,” by Matthew Desmond, a sociologist at Harvard. Desmond lived as a researcher in impoverished sections of Milwaukee and tells of his neighbors there struggling to find places to live.

“Every year in this country, people are evicted from their homes not by the tens of thousands or even the hundreds of thousands but by the millions,” Desmond notes. About one-fourth of all moves by Milwaukee’s poorest renters were involuntary, and such moves disrupt children’s education, make it harder to hold onto jobs and damage the fabric of entire neighborhoods.

“Without stable shelter, everything else falls apart,” Desmond says.

The system is also dysfunctional. A renter who calls 911 too many times will be evicted, which puts battered women in an impossible situation: They can summon help when they are beaten or strangled, but that may land them out on the street.

Liberals who write about poverty sometimes ignore self-destructive behaviors, while conservatives sometimes see nothing else. To his credit, Desmond acknowledges that people on the edge periodically abuse drugs or squander money — he writes about one woman who devoted her entire monthly allocation of food stamps to a grand lobster dinner. But he also emphasizes that it’s not so much irresponsibility that causes poverty as the other way around.

And Desmond notes the generosity among the neediest: The woman who bought the lobster used her food stamps in a different month to buy food for a neighbor who was even more desperate.

The United States does allocate immense resources to housing. But they go mostly to benefits for homeowners, like the mortgage interest tax deduction. These benefits aren’t particularly effective: Homeownership rates are lower in the U.S. than in Canada, which doesn’t have the deduction.

In comparison to the mortgage deduction, Obama’s request to end family and youth homelessness would cost a pittance.

“Compared to the cost of so many things out there, and to the cost of inaction, this is a great deal,” Julián Castro, the secretary of housing and urban development, told me.

My friend Khadijah managed to overcome her lack of shelter as a child, but most of the 123,000 kids who are homeless won’t be so lucky.

“Housing was once the forefront of the progressive agenda,” Desmond told me, but then it fell off. Today the problem isn’t a lack of solutions, but a lack of political will and a failure to fund programs that work. So let’s ask the candidates: Will you back the president’s budget request and try to end family homelessness?

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

Amid all the truly awful things state legislatures do, one of the rare bright spots has been the naming of official symbols. Who was ever made unhappy by the designation of a state rock?

Tennessee, alas, is screwing up the record. The governor is currently trying to decide whether to sign a piece of legislation that would put the Bible on the list of State Things, alongside the salamander (amphibian), milk (beverage), honeybee (agricultural insect), raccoon (wild animal), several variations on the theme of state tree and flower, and nine — nine! — official state songs. The last of which, adopted in 2011, was “Tennessee.”

The next question you’re probably asking is why it took nine tries for Tennessee to get a song named “Tennessee,” and the answer is that it actually has two. You have to admit that’s pretty inclusive. On the other hand, picking the Christian holy book as a state symbol seems simultaneously divisive and unnecessary. Not to mention sort of disrespectful to the Bible, which doesn’t usually get included on the same list as the salamander and the smallmouth bass.

“It’s been a hard year for diversity and inclusion in Tennessee,” said Senator Lee Harris, a Memphis Democrat, in a phone interview. Harris is the Senate minority leader, which means he heads a hearty band of five out of 33 members, an all-time low for his party. Besides the Bible bill, the Legislature recently passed a new Confederate heritage measure, and on Wednesday the House approved a bill aimed at allowing counselors and therapists to deny services to gay or transgender patients. Meanwhile, one member left a DVD in her colleagues’ mailboxes titled “America’s Mosques Exposed! Video Evidence They Are War Factories.”

Feel free to blame this all on Donald Trump.

In the great scheme of things, making the Bible the state book may be the least of Tennessee’s problems. But it’s sad to see the state messing with a time-honored, cheerful tradition. For generations, middle-school civics classes have studied how a bill becomes a law by petitioning their legislature to honor the otter as state animal, or the blueberry muffin as the official … state muffin. (Here’s looking a you, Minnesota.)

Then, jovial hearings take place. Serious-minded colleagues complain that the House and Senate are wasting valuable time. This is true only if you labor under the assumption that the lawmakers would otherwise be busy reforming the contract procurement process.

Years ago, when I was covering the Connecticut state legislature, a fight between the deer and the whale forces went on for so long that the Senate went into a brief rebellion and voted to name the human being as the official state mammal. It was at that moment that I decided I wanted to spend my life covering politics.

The point of the symbol-naming has always been amity and good citizenship. But recently, the cultural wars have intruded. In 2011 Utah became the first state to pick an official state gun, an automatic pistol called the Browning M1911. (“This firearm is Utah,” said the sponsor.) Hot on its heels came Arizona and the Colt revolver, a gun that won the West or — as a few legislators noted — drove out the Native Americans.

The momentum kept gathering. Erin McCoy, the executive director of State Symbols USA, a website dedicated to — well, you know — says she misses the days when the only weapon-related designations involved retired battleships and war memorials. Now firearms may be the fastest-growing category. “I don’t enjoy doing pages for them,” she admitted.

There are now seven states with official guns, although to be fair, some are so extremely old and inefficient they really might count as historic artifacts. The exceptions include — yes! — Tennessee, which recently honored a .50-caliber rifle, the Barrett M82/M107. Critics pointed out that the designee has the power to knock down a commercial aircraft, although the debate in the State Senate seemed to suggest that might be a good thing. One supporter noted proudly that witnesses had “seen this thing go a mile and a half through a cinder block to take out its target.”

The lone senator to speak against the bill, Jeff Yarbro of Nashville, complimented the weapon maker, a local boy, on his ingenuity. But, he added, when “our elementary school kids are going through looking at the mockingbird, the raccoon, the purple iris, I’m not sure that the Barrett sniper rifle is a necessary addition.“

This is not what symbols were made for. Skip the guns and save the state dance. Books seem to be dicey territory, although we can all rally around Massachusetts’ choice of “Make Way for Ducklings.”

The next time your state legislators try to stick religious preference into the designations, tell them everybody would be much happier with another rock, legume or fossil. Or they could follow Utah in one of its happier days, and pick an official state cooking pot. Nobody was ever made unhappy by a nod to the Dutch oven.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: