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.
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City follows a handful of poor families in Milwaukee, and their landlords, as they struggle to pay rent or collect rent. The tenants lead complicated lives. Many have addictions of various kinds, too many children, criminal records, abusive partners, disabilities of all kinds, little education and grim employment records and prospects. Evictions are just one more problem on top of the others, and although the author clearly demonstrates how unstable housing creates enormous problems for poor households, it’s not entirely clear how the fix he recommends, providing universal housing assistance, would solve the larger issues.
Despite the simplistic recommendation, the description what it takes to be a landlord in inner-city Milwaukee is enlightening.
Do you hate Bill Gates? Then you will love The Reproach of Hunger: Food, Justice, and Money in the Twenty-First Century, which often reads like a 300-page diatribe against him personally and his charitable foundation.
Why the author would choose this form of expression is unclear. Basically he hates everything about food programs. He hates the fact that the percentage of very poor people in the world has fallen (because the absolute number has increased — which is sad, but does not negate progress, right?) He hates that many people involved in antipoverty programs (including his nemesis, Bill Gates) are optimistic that the situation will continue improve. He thinks that we should all stop all optimism, right away. He knows, just knows that harvests will fail and we will all starve and he and Malthus predicted it: there are just too many humans on too small a planet. He hates that philanthropists choose to fund school before everyone knows that we should, instead, feed babies and toddlers (he has a point but perhaps it’s better to fund schools than say, wars). He can’t even start to consider the benefits of GMO crops because women in sub-Saharan Africa are still having too many babies (Should we pause all efforts while they decide that 2.2 is a good number? That would be insane.) He also deplores that the same antipoverty mavens noted above (and in particular the very bad Bill Gates, did I mention he hates him?) are able to applaud when countries headed by dictators make some progress fighting poverty.
It’s very tiring to read a book filled with such hate of everything. Too bad, since there are many valid points in the book, in particular the problem of doing good only when good can be publicly recognized and admired.
In an even tone, Kid Moses tells the story of Moses, a young child who lives in Tanzania, orphaned and homeless. He gets beaten up, gets a job, spends some time in a cushy orphanage, escapes with his best friend, and generally makes his own way through life.
It’s sad. And we know, hope, pray, that he will make it. Quite a feat of writing from a child’s point of view.
Stories From the Shadows: Reflections of a Street Doctor is a collection of stories written about a Boston physician who works with homeless patients. Many stories just tell a particular person’s story, although others tackle more general themes about homelessness, poverty, and mental disease.
The stories are compelling, and the author is, without a doubt, a great physician, very much attuned to his patients and their needs. I would have liked more of a focus on solutions, at least partial solutions since it’s clear that the problem is immense, for how cities can tackle the problem of homelessness with both humanity and financial restraint. The stories make it pretty clear that right now, we are both spending a lot of money and doing a terrible job (most of the time). Not a good combo.
It’s too bad that Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America is written in such an aggressive tone, which is a real turnoff for readers, because its contents are edifying and well worth reflecting about.
The author talks about her life as a poor working (married!) mother in the US, working multiple jobs and still never managing to maintain a stable housing situation or even hang on to a working car. When pundits intone that poor people just need to behave better, it would be useful for them to think about the raw deal that workers at the bottom of the heap get: low pay, sure, but also irregular hours, with immediate loss of jobs if they cannot accommodate last-minute scheduling changes. And it is hard to get one of those minimum-wage jobs, as employers routinely run credit checks, even for run-of-the-mill jobs, which are often unflattering for poor applicants.
I recommend this book for its content, as well as the spirited voice of the woman who writes it, but the grating and accusatory tone, not to mention the salty language, makes it challenging to read.
Without a Net: Middle Class and Homeless (with Kids) in America tells the author’s brief but very painful summer of homelessness, with three children, one still in diapers, in a small New England town. She works, hard, as a waitress but doesn’t seem to be able to accumulate enough for a deposit on a rental, so she knits together a life of sleeping in her car, getting her sympathetic coworkers to check on the kids in the evenings, and carefully considered purchases of groceries and showers.
It’s remarkable that her efforts to get public assistance promptly fail with not much effort from the social workers to provide real help. (And after all, her main requirement is that down payment, not a lifetime of handouts.) But the best part of the story are the kids’ stories — showing once again that children can be surprisingly resilient, at least for a summer, and at least with one fiercely loving, if occasionally misguided, parent.
It would be interesting for a book that describes poverty in America to give some statistics about the poor: how old they are, what education they have, whether they were born in poverty, how people born in poverty may have climbed out of it. We don’t get many statistics in The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives, mostly personal stories, affecting, but that leave the reader straining for a higher-level understanding of the problem.
And it would be interesting for a book that prescribes remedies to the problem of poverty to give comprehensive recommendations that consider multiple aspects of the issue and rely on quantitative evaluations of past efforts. Not so much here. For instance, the author dismisses any improvements to K-12 education out of hand, stating that children who are hungry or homeless cannot possibly benefit from improvements in schools. That may be, but are all poor children literally homeless? And would not a strong school system allow at least some to progress to non-poor lives? And how can the author, at the same time, vaunt the benefit of a $5,000 award given to each child at birth to cover university tuition? Surely a sensible homeless parent would take that money and make a deposit on a place to live? I certainly would. It seems that the author’s main solution to poverty is to tax more and give more money to the poor. It would certainly alleviate immediate problems, but that’s not exactly a recipe for changing the system that creates entrenched inequality for future generations, is it?