The Obama Watch

Obama’s Homeless

If they were Ronald Reagan's, they would not be ignored.

By 10.26.12

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Those of us who lived through it will never forget the left's unceasing campaign blaming Ronald Reagan for the homeless in the 1980s. It was a vicious campaign, replete with the typical name-calling and nasty hyperbole. To this day, liberals haven't let go.

"Reagan deliberately created 'homelessness,'" writes one observer at the Democratic Underground.

Adds Peter Dreier, a well-known progressive who teaches at Occidental College: "[A] fitting tribute to [Reagan's] legacy would be for each American city to name a park bench -- where at least one homeless person sleeps every night -- in honor of our 40th president."

The left launched an unceasing campaign from Reagan's first year in office until his last, as if there had been no such thing as a homeless American until Ronald Reagan took up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Reagan biographer Lou Cannon noted how Reagan had been in office mere months and liberals were already erecting tent cities outside the White House intended to evoke images of "Hooverville" during the Great Depression. These mock shanties were declared "Reagan ranches."

Naturally, the mainstream media jumped on the bandwagon, merrily aiding and abetting the campaign. You couldn't turn on CBS Evening News with Dan Rather -- the worst of all of them -- without getting your regular nightly homeless update. The Big Three of Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, and Tom Brokaw (CBS, ABC, and NBC) sent their camera crews across America for dramatic interviews with these suffering souls victimized by Ronald Reagan's Decade of Greed. In a snap, Phil Donahue would find himself a gorgeous, brilliant, saintly mother of four with a doctorate in astrophysics living in a dumpster in southeast D.C.

And the whole sorry mess was laid at the cold, uncaring feet of Reaganomics. It was a giant national tragedy.

Of course, once Bill Clinton became president, the tragedy was suddenly over, as the homeless magically disappeared; that is, they disappeared from media attention -- much like how Iraq immediately exited the media's headlines the day George W. Bush was gone. For our "journalists," it was mission accomplished. The homeless had served their purpose.

Why bring this up now? For a crucial reason that every conservative ought to know:

There are more homeless right now, at this point in Barack Obama's presidency, than there were at this point in Reagan's presidency. That's significant because the homeless, at this point under Reagan, were used by liberals to torpedo Reagan's reelection bid. And yet, today, liberals are completely silent about the homeless under Obama. Liberals have not turned the homeless into a propaganda issue today, as they did in the 1980s.

Here are the facts:

First off, it's difficult to get numbers on the homeless. They don't register like the unemployed do, or like those filing for welfare benefits. Calculating the homeless requires careful study. HUD did just that under Reagan because of the utter hysteria by liberals. Homeless advocates like the late Mitch Snyder spoke of millions upon millions of homeless (three million, imagined Snyder) wasting away on the streets. One account claimed 250,000 homeless in Chicago alone, which was ridiculous -- but the press dutifully reported it anyway.

And so, HUD in 1984 released its report, estimating 250,000-350,000 homeless at the end of 1983. That was the data going into Reagan's fourth year, and just as the Reagan boom was starting. As Professor Andrew Busch notes, even by the late 1980s, most studies placed the homeless around 300,000.

As for today, under Obama, the most recent study is a report by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, titled "State of Homelessness in America 2012." That report provided data through the end of 2011, heading into Obama's fourth year. It listed 636,017 homeless in 2011, which is double the number under Reagan.

The report actually contends that the number is down slightly from 2009, when the figure was 643,067. The report suggests that this tiny decrease 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."

But that hardly suggests improvement. The reports laments that "While the homeless population decreased nationally, it increased in 24 states and the District of Columbia."

In fact, I would expect that the total homeless for 2012, which we don't know yet, is surely much worse than 2011, given the sharp rise in food stamps and the continuing chronic unemployment.

Either way, 636,000 homeless is stunning. They even include the likes of Erin Moran, who played "Joanie" on the 1970s hit TV show, Happy Days. And anyone who has been to any major city knows what I'm talking about. I'm seeing more homeless than I've ever seen before. A friend of mine told me about two Australian friends who recently visited San Francisco: "They were simply appalled at the number of homeless everywhere in the city. They commented that on almost every street there were homeless hanging out." I saw the same recently when visiting very rich and very liberal Santa Barbara.

The homeless are everywhere, especially in cities run by liberals.

But more to my point here: Why do liberals, particularly in their media, only seem to care about the homeless when a conservative like Ronald Reagan is president? We know the answer. They use the homeless as a political weapon, and they wanted to hurt Reagan and want to help Obama. It's that simple.

As for Obama, this is yet another awful economic indicator, but an unappreciated one. Think about it: we're all painfully aware of the systemic unemployment, the surge in food stamps (from 32 to 47 million) and welfare (up 32 percent in four years), the record deficit, the record debt, and terrible GDP growth (1.3 percent currently). It's the ultimate non-recovering "recovery." And now add the homeless to this economic disaster.

Of course, I don't expect CBS Evening News to bother itself with the homeless. I'm not naïve. However, conservatives and their media sources might want to consider doing some stories, some blogs, some video posts. Where's Fox News? Where are the conservative bloggers and websites and magazines? Gee, it's not like the homeless are hard to find. 

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About the Author

Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His latest book is 11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative.