Minorities and Homelessness in the United States and Europe: A Comparative Analysis

By Carmen Radu
2012, Vol. 4 No. 12 | pg. 2/12 |

Structural Explanations: Capitalism, Neoliberalism, and Poverty 

Other scholars primarily point to economic structural factors, linking homelessness to persistent urban poverty caused by Capitalism and Neoliberal economic policies. These analyses discount individualistic explanations and argue that American political science is unfortunately embedded in a culture in which poverty reflects personal failings, personal choice, and personal characteristics (Wright 2000, 31). Wright cites that a literature search on homelessness revealed that 2/3 of articles appeared in journals devoted to psychiatry, psychology, and medicine.

Most of the socio-structural explanations originated in the late 1980s to explain the sudden increases in the U.S. homeless population, and continued in the early 2000s. For example, Wright argued that the increase in homelessness worldwide came about due to the shift from the welfare state to the Neoliberal state, which generated extreme social inequalities and limited affordable housing. The context is the transition to a post-industrial, service-based Capitalist economy, and the main causal factors are: the integration of Transnational Corporations, deregulation, privatization, and financial austerity, all of which accelerated accumulation of capital at the expense of working class families (Wright 2000, 30-32). This led to declining incomes and declines in welfare.

Duffield directly links the 1980s surge in homelessness to Reagan’s policies of decreased social spending and the assault on organized labor (Duffield 2001, 197-198). Susser added that the homeless are part of the “underclass” who have been victimized by the global Capitalist economy, which has made their low skilled labor unnecessary and irrelevant to the service-based economy (Susser, 1996). This socioeconomic structural transition that these scholars have pointed to is also called the post-Fordist social transition hypothesis, occurring in the 1970s. Mingione states that post-Fordism has increased risk of poverty for the common worker. In addition to the factors cited above, other characteristics are the disappearance of stable wages, erosion of the protective role of the nuclear family, declines in marriage and birth rates, population aging, and decreased role of kinship networks due to rising individualism (Mingione 1996, 15-20).

The post-Fordism literature therefore considers homelessness within the context of increased risk of poverty for lower skilled workers. They do not deny the role of individual vulnerability such as mental illness or addiction problems, but these are not the causal factors pushing some into homelessness, the economy is. These works do recognize that minorities are more vulnerable to poverty or homelessness, but they do not clearly explain why, and the causal factor and driver remains post-Fordism and Capitalist restructuring.

Wacquant argued that the spatial and industrial restructuring of American Capitalism triggered “hyperghettoization” and the social and economic marginalization of inner city Blacks. Mainly, at a time when African Americans were migrating en masse to the rustbelt central cities, manufacturing jobs were fleeing abroad, in the sunbelt states, and the suburbs (Wacquant et al. 1989, 1011). Wacquant argued that the restructuring of the urban economy transformed the ghetto from being a common resource and a humanized place with which blacks felt a positive identification in the 1960s, to an instrument of virtual imprisonment for the urban sub-proletariat of color (Wacquant 1996, 125). Wacquant primarily views the homeless as part of the marginalized group of people which include expandable industrial workers and others whose marginal status is caused by the “de-proletarianization” and class fragmentation resulting from Capitalist restructuring (Wacquant 1996, 128). The post-Fordism literature therefore does not particularly address why minorities are overrepresented among the homeless. For Wacquant, race and discrimination only play a role as part of the intermixing with class and capitalist restructuring, producing advanced marginality.

Immigrant Laws and Marginalization

Another group of scholars have looked at marginality and homelessness of undocumented peoples, attributing their situation to racism and discrimination embedded in immigration laws and public attitudes. In writing about inequality and racism towards immigrants in Europe, Calavita argues that a neo-racism has developed, which is justified by cultural difference rather than aesthetic difference. Culture is associated with national or ethnic background, and is viewed as static. Immigrants in Italy and Spain are seen as incompatible invading cultures that can weaken the host country culture and attack the superior European identity. Despite integration laws that promote multiculturalism, immigration laws ensure marginalization because they create exclusion in access to equal rights and resources, condemning these groups to poverty. In turn, the low status of immigrants is blamed on cultural inability to integrate (Calavita 2005, 149-153).

Public attitudes towards immigrants parallel exclusionary immigration laws. Simon and Lynch conducted a study comparing public attitudes towards immigrants in the United States, France, Germany, the UK, Canada, and Australia. They found that no country’s public has favorable opinions about the respective cohorts of immigrants, and that respondents wanted their country to accept fewer immigrants and place more restrictions on immigrants of color (Simon and Lynch 1999, 458-464). In a most recent study released in 2011, the European Network Against Racism has found that racially discriminatory practices in Europe are widespread, institutionalized, and practiced at all levels across Europe. They also found data on racism to be unreliable and undocumented in official data. Key people being discriminated against are: Africans, black Europeans, Muslims, Roma, Jews, and migrants. More specifically, they found discrimination in access to housing, the recruitment process for employment, segregation and discrimination by teachers in the educational field, prejudice by staff and doctors in the medical field, difficulties in accessing certain bars and other entertainment, promotion of racism in the media, us vs. them rhetoric, and negative representation of minorities in the media (Gauci 2011, 4-5). These types of attitudes and discrimination in the housing and employment markets push these vulnerable groups into homelessness.

Calavita and Edgar et al. have written directly about immigrant vulnerability to homelessness in Europe. In 2004, Edgar et al. conducted one of few comparative projects on this issue. They discovered the same puzzling pattern whereby ethnicity alone is an important factor in determining access to housing across Europe (Edgar et al. 2004, 103). Similarly to Calavita, Edgar et al. argue that a “hierarchy of vulnerability” has been created by European migration policy, such that there are eight categories of migrants with differential access in seven domains: right of residence, right to employment, right of access to welfare, right of political participation, right to claim naturalization, to travel within the EU, and rights of dependent family members (Edgar et al. 2004, 28).

Edgar et al. found specific instances of discrimination by private landlords who refused to sell or rent to foreigners, and systematically higher rent for foreigners. They argue that “racism and xenophobia is an endemic and systematic feature of housing markets in the EU-15.” (Edgar et al. 2004, 86). A similar argument is found in the work of Nicholas Pleace. He argues that cultural and ethnic minorities are at increased risk of homelessness throughout Europe due to socioeconomic exclusion linked to structural and individual racism (Pleace 2010, 154). He adds that duration of homelessness and “cultural assimilation” is linked to lowered risk of homelessness among migrants (Pleace 2010, 153).

Similarly to Edgar et al., Calavita found that illegal status contributes to lack of housing because it is illegal to rent to the undocumented, forcing the undocumented into black market housing where prices are much higher. Being unable to pay due to low wages, many become homeless. Calavita also finds that documented immigrants live in many of the same places with the undocumented because of discrimination. She finds spatial segregation of immigrant communities, and premiums added to immigrant housing prices; Calavita argues that in turn, the housing problem becomes a marker of difference, reproducing marginality (Calavita 2005, 110-117).

The immigration laws and marginalization approach does not explain or address why non-immigrant minorities or descendants of immigrants are overrepresented among the homeless. Anti-immigrant laws alone are not sufficient in explaining the phenomenon, especially when it comes to the United States. A more comprehensive approach is one based on Tilly’s durable inequality, which explains why discrimination and racism occurs against some groups and not others, and why direct or indirect discrimination has the structural impact that it does, in this case: minority homelessness.

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