The Great Emasculator

Homelessness. A few years ago, the word didn't exist. Even now, it's not in the dictionary. But everyone knows what it means. And everyone knows it's become a major problem in urban America. Who are the homeless? The word conjures up images of bag ladies and destitute families. But statistics tell us the overwhelming majority of the homeless are single men. So if we want to understand the problem of homelessness, we have to ask ourselves: What is happening to America's men? Yesterday's homeless consisted mainly of older white men living on skid row. Today's homeless are mainly poor minority men in their early to mid-30s, typically the age for marriage and child-rearing. What could be inducing young men to give up the normal satisfactions of family life? The answer has much to do with federal policies. Our welfare system has been designed primarily to help women and children. Aid to Families with Dependent Children, food stamps, subsidized housing, free medical and legal services--all these services are targeted on the poor ghetto mother. But what effect do they have on the poor ghetto father? The answer is, they undercut the most powerful force in men to pull themselves up out of poverty: namely, their desire to provide for their families. The welfare package often equals what a ghetto father is able to earn working at a low-skill job. So a ghetto woman is sometimes forced to choose between being married and receiving government aid. As one ghetto woman put it, "Welfare changes even love. If a man can't make more at a job than I get from welfare, I ain't even gonna look at him. I can't afford it." The way a man sees it, he has to compete with the state for his woman. Hardly a fair competition. As one journalist writes, the result is that low-income men are forced to become ghost husbands and ghost fathers, always one step ahead of welfare workers ready to disqualify families for having a man around. Eventually, the men become drifters, living off one welfare women after another. Or they give up entirely and live in abandoned cars and vacant buildings. Homeless. Before we judge these men as failures and bums, we need to understand how their social role has been undermined by federal policies. Consider the ghetto man who works hard at a low-paying job, struggling to be a good husband and father. How does he feel when he sees his friends--unmarried, unemployed--living off various welfare women? His efforts to do right are mocked. He's made to feel the sucker. It doesn't have to be this way. Back in the Depression, when the welfare system was established, it was paralleled by programs providing work for men: the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Works Progress Administration. The idea was welfare for women, work for men. Well, we still have welfare for women, but where is the work for men? Where are the programs that reinforce men's role as provider? The standard solution for homelessness is to build more shelters. And that may well be necessary in the short term. But the long-term solution is to reform the welfare system. You and I need to confront our politicians. Tell them that we want programs that reinforce responsibility, not irresponsibility, in ghetto fathers. When we do that, we'll be doing something much more basic than building shelters. We'll be helping men feel like men again.


Chuck Colson


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