Mother Jones: Centrism & Classism At What Is Supposed To Be A Progressive Magazine | Blog#42
The first line of Mother Jones Magazine’s “Our History” page reads as follows:
“Mary Harris Jones, this magazine’s namesake, crafted a persona that made her a legend among working people.”
It’s been nearly two decades since this history of the magazine was written. While the publication retains an important place in American journalism, certainly when it comes to investigative work, that standing is brought down quite a few pegs by the likes of Kevin Drum. This is now the third time, or so, that I make mention of him in one of my pieces. Neither mention was in praise of his work.
In a piece entitled “Are People Disgusted by The Homeless,” Drum riffs off of a Washington Post piece written by two academics with a new study to sell. The survey purports to be research-based. The research was done on YouGov, an online market research company based out of the United Kingdom. College students learn early on in Statistics 101, that online polls are far from the gold standard and should neither be the sole source of polling, nor should they be considered a trusted source. I must admit I have not read the authors’ survey and, thus, do not know whether they relied on YouGov only, as the source for their polling. The work is by Scott Clifford and Spencer Piston, both Assistant PoliSci professors. Co-Author Spencer Piston’s work is prone to coming under fire for the provocativeness with which he tackles race in America, in tandem with a certain lack of academic rigor.
The premise of the piece Drum blogged about begins with the false assumption that homeless people, most, if not all of them, have mental disorders. The proof proffered in the piece is an undated and unlinked chart by The National Coalition for The Homeless. Oddly enough, a quick search of their website leads to a fact sheet dedicated to explaining why people experience homelessness:
“Two trends are largely responsible for the rise in homelessness over the past 20-25 years: a growing shortage of affordable rental housing and a simultaneous increase in poverty. Below is an overview of current poverty and housing statistics, as well as additional factors contributing to homelessness. A list of resources for further study is also provided.”
The paragraph above begins the fact sheet. One needs to scroll to about the middle of the page in order to begin finding a discussion on mental illness.
“Particularly within the context of poverty and the lack of affordable housing, certain additional factors may push people into homelessness. Other major factors, which can contribute to homelessness, include the following:”
The fact sheet in question was last modified in 2011.
There is a separate page on mental illness and homelessness:
Mental Illness and Homelessness
Published by the National Coalition for the Homeless, July 2009
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 20 to 25% of the homeless population in the United States suffers from some form of severe mental illness. In comparison, only 6% of Americans are severely mentally ill (National Institute of Mental Health, 2009). In a 2008 survey performed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, 25 cities were asked for the three largest causes of homelessness in their communities. Mental illness was the third largest cause of homelessness for single adults (mentioned by 48% of cities). For homeless families, mental illness was mentioned by 12% of cities as one of the top 3 causes of homelessness. “
The last time this page was modified in some fashion, is in 2012. For 25% of the homeless as mentally-ill to become preponderant in the space of five years is impossible.
A lot of water has gone under the bridge since 2011, namely, the cessation, in 2014, of unemployment benefits to those who fell into long-term unemployment at the start of the Great Recession, and the birth of a Gig Economy that is said to encompass 95 million Americans at present. It is at the end of 2014 that major metropolitan areas began to see double or more the number of homeless they had been accustomed to.
“What isn’t mentioned here is that the safety net already suffered from Republican cuts that were agreed to by Democrats and took effect in 2014, in the budget that was passed and signed at the end of 2013. Those cuts ended long-term unemployment and reduced eligibility and benefits under TANF. The negative impact of those cuts was felt that same year, with homelessness rates beginning to rise so sharply that two years later, many large metropolitan areas declared states of emergency due to new housing crises. While the rate at which the economy has added new jobs has accelerated in that time period, there are still 95 million underemployed and unemployed according to the BLS’ last published jobs report for the year 2016.”
Moreover, there is a spectrum within homelessness that now includes what some term as “homeless-adjacent,” a population of people who do not have a place to call home, but couch-surf in the homes of friends and family. There are also those who, due to insufficient income, share 1-family housing with a number of other families. Another category of homeless, most notably in Southern California where the housing crisis is particularly severe, are the thousands of new recreational vehicle (RV) residents who either live in RV parks, or on city streets. The vast majority of these people suffer from a lack of sustaining employment and not mental illness, a lie Drum not only repeats in his piece, but which he bolsters by normalizing disdain of those who are less fortunate. The comments left by Drum’s readers are illuminating.
It is this kind of centrism, the kind that reassures people that the conflicts they feel deep inside are perfectly normal and that painting a whole class of people as dangerous, in order to justify jettisoning them, is OK. Well, it isn’t. What’s more, the media has been misrepresenting the news on jobs. While lots of new jobs are still being created, these are not “good jobs,” and, by most accounts, someone who nets $10 an hour from gig work, isn’t making a living wage.
Drum still gets a lot of traffic at Mother Jones and he used to get quoted by Paul Krugman quite often in blog posts. Writers, including in the economic realm, often use each other’s arguments in their writing. That is part and parcel of the reason why the media is its own echo chamber. For someone of Drum’s standing as a writer to call the mentally-ill dangerous in the way he has, is just plain crass. Drum lives in Irvine, California, one of the wealthiest, most gated community-filled cities in the nation. The sights and sounds of the crazed, drunk and drug-addled are rare in his neck of the SoCal woods. So, even though Drum isn’t working from New York or Washington, DC, his perspective is still very much the same as someone who lives in the more affluent sections of those cities.
Most homeless people aren’t crazy or drugged up. The reason why those people are most visible is that they don’t have the mental wherewithal to make themselves disappear, whereas a family of three or four without a home will do its level best to pretend to be normal. But, make no mistake, you shop with them at the grocery store, rub elbows with them at the library line, your kids go to school with them. They might even be a co-worker. You might even have a relative or two who hasn’t rebounded from the Great Recession. 95 million out of a population of 320 million is a serious chunk. There are currently more young people living at home, well past the time they traditionally leave. This is a side effect of our new economy and not some psycho-babblish trait of the millennial generation.
As for Drum, what’s at issue here isn’t that this kind of view is expressed. It is that this kind of writing can be found in a publication that is generally considered progressive rather than where it belongs: in Breitbart. Yes, the upper middle class does have a tendency toward NIMBYism, as Comedian George Carlin described it in one of his most famous routines:
Oh, and Kevin, Carlin was describing people just like you.
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