Not many Goldman Sachs executives know the struggles of the streets. Few have had to wonder where their next meal will come from, and even fewer where they will sleep that night.
Neel Kashkari, a former Goldman Sachs banker and current Republican nominee for governor of California, is not one of them.
In late July, Kashkari, a millionaire who helped oversee the 2008 bailout of the financial industry, bought a Greyhound bus ticket from Los Angeles to Fresno, one of the poorest cities in California. Kashkari brought with him just a few essentials: a backpack, a sleeping bag, a change of clothes and $40. For the next week, he lived on the streets, experiencing firsthand what it is like to be homeless. (It wasn’t his first time undertaking such a venture; last year, he stayed overnight in an Oakland homeless shelter.)
Kashkari picked an epicenter of homelessness in California. In 2013, there were 3,131 homeless people in Fresno, 81 percent of whom were unsheltered. This was the highest rate in the nation of unsheltered homeless people living in major cities.
“Since I had little money, a motel was out of the question. I tried to sleep on park benches or in parking lots,” Kashkari recounted in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. However, he was frequently hassled by police officers and kicked out of such places and because Fresno, like many cities in California and across the nation, has ordinances in place that make it a crime for homeless people to do basic human functions, like lying down to sleep. (Fresno has an anti-camping law that prohibits people from sleeping in public areas such as parks.)
Kashkari concluded his op-ed by arguing that “California’s most vulnerable citizens deserve leaders who will fight for them. It’s a fight that Republicans should lead,” pointing to the solutions of “improving education and reducing regulations.”
Governor Jerry Brown’s (D-CA) campaign and several liberal blogs have scoffed at Kashkari’s week as a campaign stunt. But they should resist the temptation unless they also want to accuse Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), and Kashkari’s fellow Californian, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA), who have all experienced homelessness firsthand in order to learn more about the problem, of political grandstanding.
Indeed, ending chronic homeless is something that many conservatives like Kashkari would argue is a fiscally conservative position. That’s because it costs taxpayers three times as much money to let homeless people languish on the streets rather than give them permanent supportive housing and services.
Where liberals can take issue with Kashkari, however, is his argument that a social safety net doesn’t help cure poverty. “The solution is simple,” the Republican hopeful declares at the end of a video documenting his week on the streets. “It’s not more welfare, it’s not more food stamps. It’s jobs.”
Job creation is vital for combating poverty, but that doesn’t mean leaving poor people to fend for themselves until they’ve climbed a few rungs up the economic ladder. In fact, the very tools Kashkari dismisses — welfare, food stamps, and increasing the minimum wage — help keep millions of Americans out of poverty.
In 2011, for example, nearly 50 million people — one out of every six Americans — lived in poverty in the United States. Though that number is far too high, it would have been higher were it not for our social safety net. Food stamps lifted nearly five million Americans out of poverty; unemployment insurance and supplemental security income lifted 3.4 million people apiece out of poverty.
And though Kashkari decried government spending on welfare programs, even many of places that helped him survive during his week on the streets, including a shelter and a food bank, rely in part on government funding in order to serve the needy.
Kashkari’s economic plan doesn’t mention homelessness once, and only mentions the poverty rate as an attack on California Gov. Jerry Brown (D), while neglecting to mention any specific ideas. Kashkari focuses on gutting regulations, but he only focuses on regulations that he believes harm businesses, not the types of local regulations that kept him — and thousands of other homeless people in California — from being able to sleep on a bench or ask passersby for spare change.