Although it can be convincingly argued that in recent years, the legitimacy of the welfare state in the United States has been subjected to an unrelenting attack, it is clear that social policy toward homeless people, generally, and homeless children and youth, specifically, reflects larger contradictions intrinsic to the nature of that entity. It is clear that the state has an expressed interest in limiting the political and economic costs of alleviating poverty so as to protect those market forces that contribute to its creation, since those forces concurrently allow privileged elites to maintain and perpetuate their economic position. On the other hand, until recently, the state has also viewed it beneficial to claim some responsibility for reducing the effects of poverty and in so doing, communicate a sense of mission that masks its other inherently coercive policies. The contradiction has usually been resolved through protecting market forces by proposing short-term solutions that do little to threaten status quo practice (Blau 1992). While even short-term solutions are now being rejected by the political right, the justification for abandoning those in need remains the same.
As an alternative to active government involvement in social policy, the state promotes an ideology of self-reliance that implies that the homeless are to blame for the predicament they confront. Accordingly, the homeless should be held directly responsible for ameliorating their harsh living situations, and in any event, they already have adequate resources available to resolve their dilemmas. This stance serves the interests of the state quite well, for it minimizes the state’s responsibility to initiate structural reform by posing the issue as one of individual competence and will.
In conceiving of the state, it is useful to examine the discursive function of its institutional components. State institutions are responsible not only for forming and implementing policies but also for legitimizing them. They consistently attempt to make the case that it is the general will rather than that of specific interests that is well served when policy formation and implementation occurs. As Bob Jessup notes:
Any general definition of the state would need to refer to state discourse as well as state institutions….The core of the state apparatus comprises a distinct ensemble of institutions and organizations whose socially accepted function is to define and