There’s hope for every homeless person in America. So long as he’s extraordinary.

You might've heard about the homeless man in OH with a "golden voice" whose fortunes changed overnight after a video of him speaking was posted online (see below). The next day, offers of lucrative voice-over work in commercials and other major projects flooded in.

I'm certainly very happy to see a person who's been down on their luck be shown a modicum of concern by the surrounding world, but I find the extremeness of the case emblematic of what's wrong with American media discussions of poverty. As I wrote on Facebook when I shared this article, "The problem is that this heart-warming case isn't really very inspiring when you think about it. A homeless person shouldn't have to have some extraordinary talent in order to have a shot at survival. Are the many thousands of people (many with families) who lack a 'golden voice' undeserving of a second chance?"

I'm reminded at this juncture of Will Smith's film "The Pursuit of Happiness", which was a profoundly flawed and in some respects downright reactionary treatment of the subject. Yes, its tear-jerking portrayal of the struggles of a man to provide for himself and his son in a hostile world might inspire some reflection about the harshness of life for America's poor on the viewer's part, but that bit of consciousness-raising is quickly undone by how the movie sidesteps the freakish atypicality of this real-life case (i.e., landing an internship with a top brokerage firm and then beating the odds and stiff competition to snag a job as an investment banker, all while homeless), how it–bizarrely in a film with its ostensible message of compassion and understanding–doesn't so much as hint at how many equally deserving and hardworking people (and families) are out there who never get a chance to pull themselves out of poverty, much less achieve the American Dream. Given the resources available to and the challenges bedeviling most people in a comparable position, that film's deus ex machina happy ending was only barely less improbable a conclusion than the hero finding, say, Alladin's lamp.

But that's what passes for socially conscious film making at the big studios. As with so many of Hollywood's pseudo-sympathetic treatments of poverty–Don't get me started on Leonardo DeCaprio's agonizingly schmaltzy, maddening stupid and sociologically upside-down "Titanic."–"The Pursuit of Happiness" ultimately whitewashes these social problems more than it throws light on them.

Silky-voiced homeless man copes with sudden fame

A homeless man from Ohio who quickly became a celebrity thanks to his smooth announcing voice indicates it's been challenging dealing with the rush of fame.


He became famous practically overnight after The Columbus Dispatch posted a web video of him earlier this week. Williams had found himself on the streets in Columbus after his life was ruined by substance abuse, but he says he has been sober for more than two years.


  • TM Lutas

    If you stay off drugs, live a disciplined life, and work, you can escape poverty fairly quickly in the US. When, time after time, investigation of somebody’s hard luck story reveals some vice or other that sucks up all available money and then some, sympathy tends to evaporate. Is this disapproval of poor habits something you’re criticizing?

  • svend

    Ah, if only it were so clear-cut, TM. I understand the revulsion against freeloading and realize that stupid decisions must have consequences. I’m sure you don’t view social problems simplistically, but the problem with the poor-people-get-what-they-deserve approach (aside from the fact that it reproduces the age-old, reactionary argument that Poverty always arises out of Sin) is that its implicit assumption of a level playing field is often utterly out of touch with reality. Irresponsibility often exacerbates these problems, sure, but there is a whole lot of structural inequality in this country that invalidates the premise behind your this reasonable-sounding expectation in many cases. And throughout the phases of life–not “only” are many, many people born with far fewer educational, professional and indeed even nutritional opportunities (hence the concept of a “food desert”), but for some people common mistakes later in life have vastly, unjustly different consequences (e.g., the many black youths whose lives are destroyed due to a racially-segregated “War on Drugs” that treats crack differently from cocaine and which often treats drug possession by young whites as a youthful indiscretion while throwing the book at the same behavior by their black peers down the street in less affluent surroundings).
    It’s reasonable to expect people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps…so long as they, too, have boots!
    Also, surveys show that in reality people’s sympathy is not simply contingent on responsibility. For example, many whites (including Tea Partiers) support welfare spending, unemployment benefits, etc. in principle for people they perceive as being like themselves; it’s when they’re asked about inner cities that they suddenly get frugal. It’s fine for hard-working people like “you or me”–setting aside how rampant drug use, fraud and unemployment are in small towns, as well–but not those lazy brown people in the projects. Race plays a huge role in how we (highly selectively) allocate resources in this country and whether we give a damn about people’s suffering, however unconsciously.
    I’m all for raising the abysmal level of investment in education in poor neighborhoods, but I’m a bit leery of focusing on I.T. (a field I also work in). Computer literacy is very important, but the “3 R’s” of Reading, Writing and Arithmetic matter a lot more in the long run, I believe.

  • svend

    There are a number of interesting questions involved here:
    * Which is professionally more valuable in the long run in a knowledge economy, the “soft skills” that a broader education encourage or targeted, professional training? I think a case can be made for either proposition.
    * Is a humanities background all it’s cracked up to be? I sometimes wonder if many people wouldn’t be much better off with European-style university/trade school parallel tracks instead of requiring everyone to get a 4 year university degree regardless of their line of work. We do fetishize liberal arts education at times, and a lot of people end up with near useless degrees and saddled with big student loans.
    And so on.
    I don’t think we disagree about anything of import here. My quip was more a reaction to the way some people in the industry spin glorified industry subsidies as grand educational schemes. There’s no question that these IT skills are critical to the future of the economy, and I don’t think it’s either/or (to the contrary, you need both).
    Speaking of access, I hope Net Neutrality doesn’t go the way of the dodo.
    Thanks for the comments.

  • svend

    No worries. My first response probably came off as socially inept and ambiguous because I accidentally cut something out, so I can’t blame you for getting the wrong idea. Belated thanks for the kind words.

  • TM Lutas

    Structurally, people who do not waste their money on intoxicants and live modestly can get their own place to live in within a year. You are assuming that the problem is an uncaring society. The problem is that most people are convinced that the major problem is circumstance when usually the major problem is bad habits that can be only helped by caring and love. But government programs don’t love, don’t care. They are mechanistic and without heart and we’ve turned over our obligation to care for our fellow man to them.
    It’s disgusting.
    Our consciences will never awaken to our own obligations to the poor so long as the convenient crutch of “the government’s taking care of it” is available as an excuse. And our conscience does need to awaken. There is a desperate need for change there.
    The structural inequalities that I see are largely because the politicians have been superempowered to put their thumbs on the scales that determine winners and losers. The rich rent politicians to keep out those who are on the bottom from overturning their applecarts and so we have the establishment of stable over and under classes. An actual free market system does not do this because people don’t have perfect track records of good decisions and when they blow it, they pay for it. The rent-a-politician system cushions the rich from the consequences of their bad decisions and shuts the door of economic progress for many poor people when they do what is right and make good decisions.
    The cure for this is not to empower the politicians even more but rather to clip their wings. Let the fat cats fall when they foul up. They do it very often. Social mobility will increase. Let charity come from those who see helping their fellow man as more than giving them a check but rather amending their bad habits that keep them from rising on their own.
    Anybody who wants a computer can get one. If you want a workstation capable of running a modern operating system, there are plenty of efforts to rehab computers and put ubuntu on them and give them away for free. If you want to create a local freenet, there’s nothing stopping you. A business class line can be had for not much money and shared out among a few dozen families making it affordable even to the poor.
    Access to technology is large and growing larger. But you can have all the access there is and if you lack the supporting culture, kids are still going to be crippled in their employment prospects.