Poverty and Social Justice

Poverty is a problem that can be fixed for some Americans. They work, get paid, and spend their money wisely. Poverty can be viewed as a choice for some people based on their situations. But what about those stuck in the limbo of poverty without assistance, stuck on the streets because they have no other options? There are many subcategories of people living in poverty, but I will be focusing on the subcategory of poverty due to mental illness. This is a serious issue that needs to be solved. In order to understand why this problem is important one must understand the history, statistics, barriers that cause poverty, and future solutions to solve this social justice issue.

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In 1882 a 61-year-old African American woman named Rebecca Smith froze to death on the streets of New York City on Tenth Avenue in her cardboard hut (Jones 141). Rebecca refused help from the Department of Mental Health during the cold season for shelter (Jones 141). To save Rebecca’s life, the city signed a court order to get Rebecca of the streets (Jones 141). Unfortunately, this court order arrived a day too late (Jones 141). This saddening incident was written in the New York Times (Jones 141). With interviews from Rebecca’s daughter the nation found out she was a talented pianist and valedictorian of her college but suffered from schizophasia (Jones 141). The nations skid row started to shift from white old men to a more diverse group of young people, African Americans, and people suffering from mental Illness (Jones 141).

At the time Ronald Raegan was president and silently ignored this ongoing problem (Jones 141). To make matters even worse, the Raegan Administration also made budget cuts that affected the social research to figure out the causes of mentally ill homelessness and how to help them (Jones 151). Larry B Silver, who as a community Psychiatrist and the deputy director and active director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in the early 1980’s, said It was a disastrous time for mental health. I don’t know if we will ever recover from it (Jones 151). Nonetheless research continued (Jones 152). Research from the NIMH found that one third of the homeless community was mentally ill (Jones 154).

In addition, Irene Shiften Levine, a Phycologist who worked for the NIMH community support system, was one of the leaders of this research and is known as the godmother of homelessness research (Jones 152, 154). She also created CHAMP, which provided the mentally ill homeless people with a clearance house (Jones 154). Levine also was part of service scale projects that reach out to extreme cases of mental illness among the homeless to provide proper care management (Jones 154). In 1987, the Stewart B. McKinley Homeless Assistance Act was reluctantly signed by Raegan due to the intense efforts of Levine (Jones 164). Both Democratic and Republican parties began to recognize the issue (Jones 164). Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico whose daughter was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and senator Al gores wife also became advocates (Jones 164). This helped fund housing, healthcare, job training, and research funded projects based on mental illness, drug abuse and alcoholism among the homeless (Jones 164). However, there are still issues with employment in the mentally ill homeless community.

In the journal article Employment, Day Labor and, Shadow Work the author, Lei Lei states that there are four types of jobs: regular jobs, day jobs, peddling, and panhandling (Lei 254). A regular job is defined as a job that has regulated pay, time of arrival for each employee, and location of work (Lei 255). A day job is a job that does not have a set wage, specific timing of arrivals or a certain location for work (Lei 255-256). Peddling is selling what you own from clothes to beer, and panhandling is begging for money or drugs (Lei 258). According to Lei, people with mental illnesses have a lower employment rate (Lei 254). A statistic showed that having a mental illness can lower a person’s chances of getting a job by 15% (Lei 264). To make matters worse, 34.1 percent of respondents reported having a mental illness in 2017 (Lei 263). The other three forms of work day labor, peddling, and panhandling did not show a significant increase or decrease in mentally ill homeless people being able to work based on the statistic (Lei 266-267).

In order to fully understand what mentally ill people living in poverty are going through, one must understand their financial experiences. A research study article called Poverty Trajectories Experienced by persons with Mental Illness, by Abraham Forchuk, studies this topic under two objectives, what types of services help the mentally ill improve their financial situation, and what are the challenges and barriers that they encounter when trying to improve or maintain their financial status (Forchuk et al. 250). The study used three groups based on if their financial situation was improving, staying the same, or worsening (Forchuk et al. 250). Common facilators associated to all three groups include supportive relationships to boosts them up emotionally, part time work, and government supported income increases to help them financially (Forchuk et al. 254-255). Some of these facilators vary depending on which group each participant falls into (Forchuk et al. 255).

For instance, participants who were financially getting worse or staying the same did not describe their experience of overcoming drugs and alcohol (Forchuk et al. 255). A possible reason is because they are still addicted and intertwined with drugs and alcohol potentially keeping or worsening their finances (Forchuk et al. 255-256). On the other hand, participants with a good financial status reported how they overcame addiction and their financial situation improved (Forchuk et al. 255). Lastly, education programs helped those stuck in the same financial situation (Forchuk et al. 256). One participant describes it as opening curtains where it is all dark (Forchuk et al. 256). Participants were also asked about the barriers that prevented them from financial success (Forchuk et al. 256). One of these barriers is the sense of hopelessness or powerlessness (Forchuk et al. 256). These participants felt or still feel like they are emotionally in a downward spiral paralyzing them from making changes in their life (Forchuk et al. 256). The future had nothing for them and there was no place to go (Forchuk et al. 256).

Additionally, many participants realized they could relieve their problems with resources like welfare or food banks they could go to (Forchuk et al. 257). Yet with all this support, the stigma of having a mental illness caused them to be discriminated against others (Forchuk et al. 257). This could cause job related issues such as not being hired because of their disability or bosses not understanding how they need to accommodate themselves at work (Forchuk et al. 257). Do to these issues or this issue alone, education limitations can be a barrier (Forchuk et al. 258). Not being able to afford things like a text book (Forchuk et al. 250). Without education the impoverished mentally ill people can potentially not become financially stable (Forchuk et al. 258). Custody over children for some participants was inevitable in their situation (Forchuk et al. 258). A similar study focused on their specific needs such as having an enough food (Rudnick et al. 151). Having enough food is hard for people in poverty.

Aware of soup kitchens and food banks they must ration what they are having, knowing what they are going to eat everyday (Rudnick et al. 151). Money constraints make it hard for these individuals to get food and their medication; leaving them to starve with their medications can increase its side effects (Rudnick et al. 151). The need for safe housing was also present in this study. When safety was increased, participants were more likely to get involved in self-promoting opportunities. Other participants who were in social housing described it to be a loud dump (Rudnick et al. 152). This kind of housing made them feel hopeless and stuck in the poor stereotype (Rudnick et al. 152).

In conclusion, historical background of the impoverished with mental illnesses was really recognized during the Raegan era with help from the NIMHs research and Irene Levine. This history put forth the social justice issue of people in poverty with mental illnesses. Because of this further research was done to help eliminate the inequalities such as job discrimination due to a person’s mental illness. To improve the quality of life for these people a study was done to highlight what promotes their financial success and what barriers keep them from achieving this goal. In efforts to alleviate future poverty, researchers have done and suggest continuing future intervention for people in poverty who are mentally ill (Forchuk et al. 250). Further research needs to be done to identify the pathways into and out of poverty for the mentally ill (Forchuk et al. 250). Hopefully, one day the world will fully accommodate those who did not make the choices but were forced into poverty.

Work Cited

  1. Forchuk, Cheryl, et al. Poverty Trajectories Experienced by Persons with Mental Illness. Journal of Poverty, vol. 21, no. 3, May 2017, pp. 247264. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/10875549.2016.1186772.
  2. JONES, MARIAN MOSER. Creating a Science of Homelessness During the Reagan Era. Milbank Quarterly, vol. 93, no. 1, Mar. 2015, pp. 139178. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1111/1468-0009.12108.
  3. Lei, Lei. Employment, Day Labor, and Shadow Work Among Homeless Assistance Clients in the United States. Journal of Poverty, vol. 17, no. 3, July 2013, pp. 253272. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/10875549.2013.804479.
  4. Rudnick, Abraham, et al. “Perspectives of Social Justice among People Living with Mental Illness and Poverty: A Qualitative Study.” The Journal of Poverty and Social Justice, vol. 22, no. 2, 2014, pp. 147-157.
  5. ProQuest, https://rose.scranton.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1948398638?accountid=28588, doi:https://dx.doi.org/10.1332/175982714X14007697173759.
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