The Third World in America

The inhabitants of a homeless shelter have the right to vote, but for decades now some of them do not believe their vote will change anything from their standpoint.

A few days ago, the election campaign made a stop at a homeless shelter in Washington, a mere seven-minute walk from Capitol Hill. One of the rooms was decorated with red, white, and blue ribbons and atop the tables sat refreshments. A volunteer cracked that without the refreshments, there was no chance anyone would show up to register to vote. The middle class and "Joe Six-Pack" are front and center in this election campaign (Barack Obama likes to pit "Main Street" against Wall Street, and John McCain does not miss an opportunity to skewer the financial markets' "pursuers of greed" who have brought disaster on their country). Even the shelter's inhabitants have the right to vote, of course, but for decades now some of them do not believe that their vote will change anything from their standpoint.

The shelter population is diverse. "The real America," its inhabitants joke. Among them are hundreds of drug addicts, the disabled, remnants of distressed families and immigrants, but there are also master's-degree holders and former professionals who once were successful but have now been pushed to the margins for various reasons. Whoever veers off to the side of the road struggles to rejoin the flow of traffic, they say. Some of them have already left the shelter and found work only to return to the shelter, starting the process all over again.

From their vantage point, the financial crisis did not begin a few weeks ago. In recent months, new inhabitants have moved into the shelter to join them. The residents, who sleep on top of one another in narrow bunk beds, do not always find a shared topic of conversation. But, as the saying at the shelter goes, "whoever walks through that door is now like everyone else." A reminder of this is hanging on the wall of the assembly hall: "third-world America."

During a time in which the economic crisis has rocked Wall Street, the shelter's inhabitants showed remarkable cool-headedness. "Can you invest on Wall Street with food stamps?" they laugh. Even warnings from financial analysts do not scare them - warnings that if the downward spiral is not halted immediately, Americans will not be able to buy a car or an apartment, or take out a business loan or send their kids to college. When you have nothing to lose, there is no sense that the American dream has slipped through your fingers. They are not party to the American dream. They do not believe in the "strong fundamentals of the U.S. economy," the government, McCain, or Obama's promises of change.

The shelter's inhabitants do not show up on the radar of the campaign managers, who make it a point to speak often about the middle class because the homeless are too low. They are at the very bottom. Some of them are even angry at Israel, though not only at Israel. "You want to be our friends? Why do we have to buy our friends with money?" one of them said. "Wouldn't it be better to get us out of this mud? Instead, they just want to kick us out of the shelter because the property is expensive and there are decision makers who don't like to see us so close to the heart of the capital."

When the managers of the collapsing companies turn their eyes toward the government and administration spokespeople adopt language that is near socialist, "third-world America" does not ask who is higher on the Treasury's list of priorities. Socioeconomic gaps are not new and Americans like to say that "it can happen to anyone." According to unemployment figures last week, 760,000 Americans lost their jobs and economic analysts fear that the jobless rate will climb to over 7 percent in 2009. Such a routine utterance no longer seems outlandish.

Congress did indeed grant President Bush a handsome parting gift when it approved the "bailout plan," but it may postpone implementation of the candidates' economic proposals by an additional presidential term. The United States has many problems, and this is well understood in the homeless shelter. The homeless population is growing (in part because other shelters around Washington are closing one after another at the insistence of city hall due to budgetary considerations and a recent shortage in donations). But if we are already talking about "everybody," they ask, when will the "bailout plan" reach them?