This Is All I Got: A New Mother’s Search for Home follows a new, bright mother with a difficult family history from a private shelter in New York City through her quest for housing for her and her son. She encounters opaque rule at the private shelter where she starts, which evicts her but does not fill her room for months, a horrible welfare bureaucracy, which bounces her from office to office without offering justification or progress, a famously tight housing market, especially at the low end, and, sometimes, her own questionable decisions, as when she decides to spend an unexpected award on a trip overseas.
To everyone who thinks that free housing is available for the asking, this may be a good book to read. Note that the author seems to equate the building of luxury housing with the lack of affordable housing. It’s not quite as simple, as we saw in Golden Gates. Different city, same problems.
Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope starts from an interesting premise: retracing the lives of the students who rode to school on the same bus as the now middle-aged first author, in rural Oregon. The picture is alarming: many are dead of drug abuse or accidents, and the ones left eke out mostly meager living amongst troubled children of their own and impoverished towns. The personal stories, and the pictures, are riveting, if sad. The recurring rants are not as powerful as the stories themselves.
Our Better Angels: Seven Simple Virtues That Will Change Your Life and the World is a book-length commercial for Habitat for Humanity, a wonderful organization that helps families build and rehab affordable housing. I did not find the book to be wonderful. It’s stuffed with inspiring stories that would entice donors to give to the organization and volunteers to sign up for a day of building, but taken together they felt, to me, like a giant ball of cotton candy: too much of a good thing. Everyone is wonderful, virtuous. Miracles save the day over and over. It’s just too much.
If you are looking for a happy story, Broke: Hardship and Resilience in a City of Broken Promises is not for you. Not that there are not a few happy, inspiring stories in it, but the general mood is more than gloomy. After losing its manufacturing base, Detroit shed many of its residents, and with them its tax base–and of course it’s often the more affluent people who have the means to leave in the first place. The author chooses to follow a few who stayed, and through their experience we see how poor record keeping surprised homeowners with sky-high tax bills, years after the purchase, how those bills included water bills that previous owners never paid (why?), and how other mistakes meant arrests and even prison for some. Of course, there’s the whole saga of the bankruptcy that left streets unlit, crime unpunished, and, perhaps saddest of all, children un-taught. It’s not pretty.
Perhaps the Silicon Valley thinkers who are emoting about the consequences of AI and robots could take a look at what government can do when business models change instead of engaging in their ritual displays of hand-wringing? This book is the story of what not to do.
Especially after the recent college admission scandals, we are well aware of how much easier it is for the children of high-income parents to get into elite universities as compared to the children of low-income parents (even when the rich parents are not cheating outright!). What is less well-known is how low-income students fare once they have been admitted. The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students looks at the lives of students in an anonymous East Coast college, comparing rich ones to poor ones. It finds many awkward situations.
Some are caused by the startling obliviousness of the rich kids (Who raised these children? Have they never thought about anyone but themselves?). Others are caused by badly designed processes (Who decided to have a separate line for students on financial aid? Fortunately the college can, and did, change some of those). And others are caused by the natural awkwardness of economic inequality, whereby the low-income students worries about their parents being evicted and the $50 winter jackets stand out in the crowd of $750 winter jackets. I did not agree with all of the authors’ concerns, but it’s clear that colleges must help low-income students make better use of their college years, they must remind their staff, professors and otherwise, that not all students come from privilege.
And one more: can we immediately eliminate legacy admissions?
Sarah Smarsh, the author of Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, grew up poor in Kansas to a mother who harbored a great frustration, anger even, at having led a harsh live of abuse, poverty, and teenage motherhood (like her mother, and her grandmother). Her relationship with her dad was sweet, but her parents split up. She describes the hard life of farmers and how difficult it is to escape poverty for another life. She did it with her brain, hard work, and college financial aid — and her fierce desire to avoid another teenage pregnancy. Her memoir is told to the daughter she never had. I found it quite hopeful: after all, the author is a successful college professor — but how many other children remain trapped in poverty?
As of this review, I officially declare my dislike of books that blend stories and recipes. But, say you, you liked this one, didn’t you? Yes, I did, but what I liked in The Best Cook in the World: Tales from My Momma’s Table was not so much the recipes, but rather the fascinating story of the author’s family, starting with his great grandfather, who had had to exile himself out of state because the law was after him — but returned to teach his daughter in law the basics of cooking. The author’s mother is a central character, as are her beliefs that sorting beans require a child-free kitchen, microwave ovens are the work of the devil, and onions need to be cooked with a light hand so as not to bruise them (I agree with this last one!).
Along the way we hear of cows mysteriously falling to their deaths (conveniently for people who need meat), more than one shooting, feeding train-riding hoboes from a version of stone soup, and incredible care lavished on food made from the simplest and cheapest ingredients. Of course, the cooking occurs without modern conveniences so that the first step is to chop the wood needed to heat the stove. We have it so easy.
White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America faithfully delivers the promise of its subtitle, starting with the idea that the problem of the so-called “waste people” of Britain could be solved by shipping them to a new country where they would thrive. The author highlights when and how various derogatory epithets came to be — and I was surprised to see that trash, sadly, had such a long history. She also spends a lot of time analyzing various novels and movies about poor people, perhaps too much since, after all, fiction is fiction. And she exposes how political decisions have reinforced the status quo (the establishment of the suburbs through zoning laws being a prime example). She wisely stays away from specific recommendations, although they are quite clearly visible from the narrative.
Exiled in America: Life on the Margins in a Residential Motel is the result of an sociological study of the population of the residential motel, where we meet people down on their luck, addicts, people with mental illnesses, and many sex offenders who cannot find any place to live under laws that prevent them living close to any school or park. It uncovers all kinds of interesting group dynamics — but the way the book is organized makes it quite painful to read. For the first and larger half of the book, the author recounts anecdotes, which are quite clear, even vivid, but then finds the need to explain to us what they mean when we can easily figure it out for ourselves. And also he seems very surprised that the residents of the motel are quite capable of looking after themselves, helping others, and taking best advantage of their limited resources. Why not, indeed? The rest of the book is a list of recommendations, which seem impractical at best. (Yes, the residents could use a nutritionist, but it’s not clear that their problem is that they don’t know about junk food, more that most of them have no way to cook for themselves.) If you can get past the sociology approach and jargon, discovering the daily life at the motel is really interesting.
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis is written by a lawyer who grew up in a poor Scots-Irish family (he does not like to say Scotch-Irish), raised in great part by his grandmother when his addicted mother could not cope. His story has been seized upon to explain the malaise of white working class Americans, but I prefer to see it as a personal narrative of hope and also practical, if often severe ideas of how government programs often fail the very recipients they try to help.
The writing is rough around the edges, but the story will stay with you.