Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Your assigned reading for today: a brilliant New York Times series about a homeless child in the most unequal city in America

On this blog, I will frequently writing about about economic inequality in an abstract sense. I'll be reporting on about social science studies about inequality, and focusing on technical issues like research methodology, or how inequality is measured, and the like. That approach to this subject is important. The technical tools of social science can be powerful, and they enable us to examine subjects like inequality in a more rigorously analytical fashion.

But at the same time, I also think it's essential to understand the subject of inequality at a granular level. What that means, ultimately, is shining the spotlight on individual people and their stories. Statistics are important, but statistics don't get people where they live. As Stalin allegedly said, "The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is statistic." That's why stories are so important. Stories are how human beings make sense of the world. As someone once said to me, "stories are data with soul."

So today, I want to a focus on a data point named Dasani.

Dasani is an 11-year old homeless girl who lives in New York City. She is the subject of a stunning five-part series that appeared in the New York Times last week. I strongly encourage you to read all five parts. Almost never does American media even acknowledge the existence of people as poor and marginalized as Dasani, let alone when they're children, so an in-depth portrayal of such a person is extraordinary. Dasani's life story is heartbreaking, and the living conditions she was forced to endure are enraging. For three years, Dasani and her family lived in a homeless shelter in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Fort Greene, as reporter Andrea Elliott notes, is a neighborhood where "the top 5 percent of residents earn 76 times as much as the bottom quintile." Here's what things were like at the place Dasani and her family called home:
City and state inspectors have repeatedly cited the shelter for deplorable conditions, including sexual misconduct by staff members, spoiled food, asbestos exposure, lead paint and vermin. Auburn has no certificate of occupancy, as required by law, and lacks an operational plan that meets state regulations. Most of the shelter’s smoke detectors and alarms have been found to be inoperable.
Inside, prepackaged meals are served in a cafeteria where Dasani and her siblings wait in one line for their food before heading to another line to heat it in one of two microwaves that hundreds of residents share. Tempers fly and fights explode. The routine can last more than an hour before the children take their first bite.
The Dickensian squalor of the shelter is a direct result of the homeless policies enacted by New York's billionaire mayor:
Yet Dasani’s trials are not solely of her parents’ making. They are also the result of decisions made a world away, in the marble confines of City Hall. With the economy growing in 2004, the Bloomberg administration adopted sweeping new policies intended to push the homeless to become more self-reliant. They would no longer get priority access to public housing and other programs, but would receive short-term help with rent. Poor people would be empowered, the mayor argued, and homelessness would decline.
But the opposite happened. As rents steadily rose and low-income wages stagnated, chronically poor families like Dasani’s found themselves stuck in a shelter system with fewer exits. Families are now languishing there longer than ever — a development that Mr. Bloomberg explained by saying shelters offered “a much more pleasurable experience than they ever had before.” [italics mine]

You may well wonder how Bloomberg reacted to this damning series. If you expected that he would pledge a review of his administration's disastrous homeless policies, angrily order an investigation into living conditions at New York City homeless shelters, or even just show a glimmer of compassion for Dasani -- well, clearly you don't know this guy. This was his response:
"This kid was dealt a bad hand. I don't know quite why. That's just the way God works. Sometimes some of us are lucky and some of us are not."
Yes indeed, Dasani was dealt "a bad hand." But it was Mayor Bloomberg and his pals who stacked that deck and cut the cards in the first place.

Bloomberg didn't express a scintilla of human empathy for Dasani and her suffering. But hey, don't take him to be some kind of cold-hearted monster. When it came to a different down-on-their-luck New York constituency, the mayor was all heart:
The mayor, who earned billions on Wall Street and has a reputation as a staunch defender of corporate culture, dropped by the investment bank’s Manhattan headquarters on Thursday in an unannounced show of solidarity that included handshakes on the trading floor and burgers with the chief executive.
Mr. Bloomberg’s hourlong visit, first disclosed by the mayor’s eponymous news agency, came as Goldman struggled to cope with an onslaught of negative publicity after a former executive’s scathing Op-Ed article in The New York Times accused the firm of wanton greed and excess.
The mayor, who suggested the appearance in a phone call to the bank’s chief executive, Lloyd C. Blankfein, couched his visit as a necessary pick-me-up for a down-on-its-luck city institution.
“It’s my job to stand up and support companies that are here in this city that bring us a tax base and that employ our people,” Mr. Bloomberg said on his weekly radio show on Friday. He castigated the news media for “piling on” the bank, saying “ridiculous isn’t even the right word” to describe the coverage.
Isn't that beautiful? What a guy! I'm so touched I'm tearing up. I hope you'll excuse me while I go look for a Kleenex.


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