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Seattle: Next Detroit or San Francisco?

Your column pointing out major differences between the economic vitality of Seattle vs. the decades long economic collapse in Detroit is excellent.  The challenge Seattle faces for the next decade or two future is not economic collapse; it's stark income inequality that is making living in Seattle very difficult for families with middle class incomes and homelessness which causes immense suffering for destitute persons, and detracts from the quality of life for everyone. This trajectory is more like San Francisco than Detroit. Seattle, like San Francisco, has been unable to cope with the consequences of an economic boom that has made its housing market one of the "hottest" in the country.  What's occurred in Seattle is an extreme frenetic version of what has occurred in the U.S. in recent decades: a sharper division of "have" and "have nots", ineffective liberal programs that attempt a workaround for severe poverty, and a growing undercurrent of hostility directed at the homeless, especially those engaged in petty crime as a survival strategy and the chronically mentally ill. 


Regardless of all the "Seattle is dying" rhetoric,  Seattle is an exciting place to live for families with incomes of $200,000 or more, but a cruel test of survival for persons / families whose annual income is less than $40,000 or so.  Lots of middle class people are moving out of the city and county because they can't afford housing; but unfortunately a less extreme version of economic trends in King County is also occurring in Pierce and Thurston counties. Many political activists lay the blame on capitalism, but the deeper explanation is cultural, i.e., a competitive culture of winners and losers in which winners are allowed to amass fantastic fortunes, without limit and without social pressure to invest in the common good. Chinese society, with a Communist government, has a similar ethos.  


Neither punitive conservative policies intended to drive the homeless underground or out of the city, or liberal programs that offer palliative services to low income persons will change this dynamic. Only huge investments in low income housing and the elimination of severe poverty through governmental programs will stop Seattle (and other boom towns) from becoming more like San Francisco, where fantastic privileges and cultural riches coexist with squalor and desperation for at least 5% of the urban population. 


There is nothing inevitable or unfixable about any of this. The fault is not in economic policies or systems beyond anyone's control. It's in the willingness of our society (and most others) to play the winners/ losers game to the maximum and then to act hopeless/ helpless when faced with the consequences.    

-- Dee Wilson

Thank you for your thoughtful note, Dee. It offers much food for thought and much to unpack.


"Homeless" is a blanket term for many situations, ranging from the short-term unsheltered to those with mental health and addiction issues and yet others living "the footloose, fancy-free lifestyle" as one person told our Project Homeless reporter.


People who lose their jobs and are evicted can be helped. The mentally ill and others require a sustained, full-spectrum response. And even then, we can't force them to live a conventional life or live inside. 


The response in Seattle has been a terrible failure despite spending hundreds of millions of dollars. Same in San Francisco and LA. At least part of this is a very generous social-safety net of liberal cities. So these cohorts keep coming from around the country.


Any constructive response requires making a city that is welcome for all, not merely "homeless" tents and needles taking over our parks and sidewalks. Meanwhile, we need much more research into the phenomenon. 


If I were getting my start, I wouldn't expect to be entitled to afford a superstar city. I would start elsewhere and work my way up (which I did). If I couldn't pay rent, I would move in with family or friends, perhaps investigate a more affordable place with a good jobs fit. This is happening less now. Fewer people are connected to family. Fewer feel constrained by a "conventional lifestyle."

-- Jon Talton

You're right that there are multiple categories of homeless persons, and that solutions must be tailored to the needs of the various groups. Nevertheless, the underlying causes of the repeated failure of homelessness initiatives are structural and follow directly from extreme income inequality. I challenge anyone, much less a family, to live in Seattle, San Francisco or LA on less than a $25,000 annual income;  but there is a large number of homeless persons and families with incomes less than half the federal poverty standard, $11-12,000 per year depending on size of family. There is not (nor will there be)  a programmatic workaround for severe poverty in cities that have experienced economic booms. The refusal to acknowledge (or say openly) that income support for severely poor families has to be part of any solution to chronic homelessness is the underlying reason for the futility of ambitious "End Homelessness' campaigns such as the one that began in King County about 15 years ago. A lot of very smart people who planned and worked in or around homelessness initiatives for years are acting dumb, or sound dumb,  because they won't admit the obvious: income support that eliminates severe poverty, along with huge investments in low income housing and long term case management for the mentally ill is the only strategy that has a chance of  reducing the prevalence of homelessness by a large percentage.


Danny Westneat has pointed out ( to me) the strong opposition from all quarters to giving homeless persons cash. For this reason, homelessness will likely only decline in and when some version of a minimum annual income is passed at the federal level. Not likely in the U.S., but in regard to social policy, homelessness is like the pandemic -- it's not going away until a society does what's necessary to get rid of it.         


The book, $2 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America by Edin and Schafer is an excellent discussion of the experiences of severely poor persons in the U.S. and of social policies needed to eliminate severe poverty.    


-- Dee Wilson         

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