As a biographer of Ronald Reagan, I’m constantly asked to compare today’s fiscal/economic situation to what Reagan faced in the 1980s. Today’s record debt/deficits remind of the 1980s, though today’s are far worse, with the deficit at least six times as high—and debt-to-GDP and deficit-to-GDP ratios two and three times (respectively) higher. The current economy is the worst since the early 1980s, with a prolonged non-recovering “recovery” older still. By 1984, the Reagan recovery was not just in bloom but exploding, with dramatically improved unemployment and economic growth six times higher than the current anemic rate, awarding Reagan millions of Democratic votes as he swept 49 of 50 states in his re-election.
But one comparison I haven’t been asked about are today’s homeless levels vs. those under Reagan. That’s a notable omission. One who has noticed is Dr. Tracy Miller, an economist and colleague of mine. Miller recently visited Chicago, where he went to graduate school in the 1980s, and was struck by what he saw. “I couldn’t help but notice the large number of homeless people in the downtown area,” says Miller, “including one homeless man pushing a child in a stroller.”
Miller observes: “Homelessness was frequently discussed during the 1980s, but seems to receive less media attention now. And yet, the number of homeless today is approximately twice as large as it was in the 1980s.”
Miller is correct. According to data from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), there is at least twice the number of homeless today than at a comparable point in Reagan’s first term. HUD estimated that there were 250,000-350,000 homeless on a typical night at the end of 1983. As Dr. Miller notes, this compares with an estimated 636,000 homeless at the end of 2011, the figures heading into the fourth year of Obama’s presidency.
And yet, when Ronald Reagan faced re-election, liberal Democrats made homelessness a huge political issue, portraying the homeless as stacked like cord wood on every street corner. They made wildly unsubstantiated claims. One source maintained that there were 250,000 homeless in Chicago alone—an impossible number that the media nonetheless happily reported. Homeless advocates like the late Mitch Snyder described dire scenarios in the nation’s capital.
Those of us who lived through this spectacle recall that you couldn’t turn on the nightly news without grim “homeless updates.” It seemed to be a regular nightly report by Dan Rather on the CBS Evening News. It was framed as a national pandemic, laid at the cold, uncaring feet of Reaganomics. It was used against President Reagan with great vigor and viciousness in his re-election bid.
And yet, the numbers today, during President Obama’s re-election bid, are worse. A report by the National Alliance to End Homelessness lists 636,017 homeless in 2011—which is actually down slightly from 2009, when the numbers were 643,067. The report, titled “State of Homelessness in America 2012,” suggests the small decrease of 7,000 might be attributable to the decrease in homeless military veterans: “The largest decrease was among homeless veterans, whose population declined 11 percent. The number of homeless veterans went from 75,609 in 2009 to 67,495 in 2011—a reduction of about 8,000.”
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