One of the big problems in our political system is that policymakers are so completely isolated from the problems of real people. Yeah, they love to talk about those tragic stories they hear from constituents, but that’s just for political show. Here’s a legislator who actually tried to find out what it’s like to be homeless:
Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier is gearing up for what she hopes is the next big fight in Congress — balancing out the growing economic inequality that has ravaged the middle class for years — so she reckoned she’d do a bit of ground-level research first.
And since you can’t get much more ground level than a homeless shelter, that’s where she went last Friday — to spend the night.
The Maple Street Shelter in Redwood City was the destination. Speier had actually been there a week before to chat with the residents, and the fact that a well-off Hillsborough member of the Washington power structure was hanging out with the penniless was lost on nobody, least of all the member herself. That was the point, she said.
“I’m still kind of reeling from the experience. Every member of Congress should be required to do what I did,” Speier said this week. “It would help us appreciate who we are talking about. We rattle off numbers, but it doesn’t speak about the people themselves.”
This wasn’t Speier’s first run at experiencing life on the other end of the scale. She spent a week last year eating only what she could buy on food stamps — “Not a lot of fresh produce on that budget,” she said — and when she was a state legislator she bunked down for a night in the state women’s prison in Chowchilla.
But now, with the most extreme split in generations between rich and poor in America, the issue of want and inequality is more urgent than it’s been in a long time. Democrats have one way of approaching it, Republicans another. Speier thinks both sides of the aisle would find her experience at the Redwood City shelter instructive.
“I met one man who spent three months in a park I used to play in growing up in South San Francisco, and then he spent one month in a bus shelter near my old elementary school,” Speier said. “He was sick. I met another man who was my age and had been in real estate for 30 years in the East Bay. He was a veteran — there were a lot of veterans there.
Far too many policies are made without any consideration for how they will affect real people living in the real world. This is a good way to help change that.