By Tim Chamberlain
Part memoir, part call to action, Looking Up at the Bottom Line: The Struggle for the Living Wage provides a compelling case on how we as a nation could attempt to end homelessness as we know it today.
The book follows author Richard R. Troxell’s life, chronicling the events that have led him to championing the Universal Living Wage as a means to end homelessness. It begins with his experiences as a young man freshly home from Vietnam and how he came to be homeless for around three years. Landing in Philadelphia amongst the some of the poorest people and neighborhoods in the city, he becomes involved in consumer activism on behalf of these poor. One of the biggest efforts he made was attempting to rehabilitate over 100 homes in his neighborhood that had fallen vacant due to shifting economics and white flight. It was during this time in Philadelphia that Troxell developed what he calls a “sense of economic fairness” that would greatly inform his views on homelessness and how to address it.
Austin, Texas, where Troxell’s ailing mother lived, became his next destination. It was here where he began an organization that provided legal aid to the homeless. He chronicles the major events affecting the homeless in Austin from the late 80s to the current day, including the controversial No Camping Ordinance, attempts to secure land for homeless facilities at the newly decommissioned Bergstrom Air Force Base, and the failed Project Fresh Start. While telling of these struggles, he also tells the personal stories of the homeless people he has known over the years. These stories put a personality on the varied issues surrounding homelessness, and reading these stories brings home the fact that, but for a few bad breaks, these homeless could be any one of us. The anecdotes underscore his points by making these issues very real.
Troxell presents a compelling personal narrative of his life and work with the homeless, but he also presents what seems to be a workable attempt at reducing homelessness in the Universal Living Wage (ULW). The ULW offers an alternative to the current Federal Minimum Wage by tying minimum wage to local housing costs, which Troxell views as the main issue faced by minimum wage workers.
There are many arguments against the ULW, mainly that it would penalize businesses by increasing their costs. Troxell’s counter to these arguments is that the overall tax burden would be reduced as fewer people depend on government subsidies, and that most of the higher wages paid would come directly back into the local economy.
No matter your stance on the Universal Living Wage or homelessness in general, you would be hard-pressed not to be touched by the stories told in this book. This is a book about a cause, written by a passionate advocate with strong voice and compelling story. Troxell has produced a work on homeless advocacy that, once read, is hard to put out of your mind.