A few months ago I was driving home from a relative's house and merged onto a busy interstate highway. I was traveling Southbound in the left-most lane when suddenly the traffic stopped. I slammed on my breaks but the car behind me crashed into my rear, crushing me against the SUV in front of me.
Fortunately, I was fine. Everyone was. I would soon learn that my car, however, had been totaled. Now what? Well, I went to the local car rental company and picked up a late model Hyundai for the week and later stopped by the Honda dealership to purchase an Accord. An inconvenience, sure, but nothing too disrupting.
Now let's rewind a bit. Let's say I am hit by an uninsured driver. If I can afford it, perhaps my insurance policy covers under-insured or uninsured motorists. But times are tight, so I opt for the cheaper premium without such coverage. I could sue the driver, but chances are that if they don’t have insurance, they also don’t have much in the way of assets, and lawyers aren't cheap. Now I have no funds to purchase a vehicle. I could finance a vehicle, but without money for a down payment I can't afford the monthly installments. Without a vehicle I'm unable to transport myself to work and am subsequently fired. Without work I'm unable to pay my bills. First my cell phone and Internet are disconnected due to overdue balances so I'm unable to communicate with the professional world or even search for and/or apply to employment opportunities. And even if I could find an opening, transporting myself to the interview would be challenging. Without any income I'm soon evicted or my property is foreclosed on, either of which would destroy my credit and hinder potential housing opportunities. I become homeless.
Let's go back again; what if I got hurt? Common automotive insurance policies typically have 100/300/50 liability limits. That means the policy covers $100,000 for injuries per person, $300,000 for injuries total per accident, and $50,000 for property damage per accident. If I suffered an injury resulting in permanent disability, insurance would cover $100,000 in damages. I may be able to recover damages via a civil lawsuit, but it's unlikely I'll be able to recover lifelong damages from the defendant. Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is my last resort. The monthly payment amount for the SSI program is based on the federal benefit rate (FBR). As of 2019, the FBR is $771 per month for individuals and $1,157 for couples. The FBR is the maximum federal monthly SSI payment possible. The national average rent was $1,436 in April 2019. Not only can I not afford that, but that doesn't include the basic necessities such as food and healthcare. In any event, I become homeless.
Once homeless it's extremely difficult to get out of shelters or off the streets. When a person lives on the street normally they have no access to showers. Most homeless people have no money for a haircut, much less to wash their clothes. How long do you think it would take a person to develop really bad hygiene? Not long. Particularly if you interact with customers/clients, save for attributes that are specifically protected by law (skin color, disability, etc.), all aspects of your appearance can be criticized. Your employer can also fire you if enough employees complain that your odor is making for an unpleasant workplace environment. A significant number of entry-level jobs such as cashier, retail work, and other customer service positions are the face of the company. For most homeless individuals, these jobs are all that is available, though many do not meet the aesthetic requirements.
We stand at the precipice if we don’t re-evaluate our understanding of poverty and inequality. The narrative in the neo-liberal west is that if you work hard, things work out. If things don’t work out, we have the tendency to blame the victim, leaving them without any choices.