A Window into the American Underclass

A woman looks for her tent after registering into a transitional camp for homeless people in San Diego, Calif., in 2017. (Mike Blake/Reuters)
Two new books about homeless single mothers help to explain how social dysfunction relates to poverty.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE P overty journalism is a flawed genre. Almost all chroniclers of underclass life are progressives with a deep sense of gratitude to their subjects. Any journalist, if honest, acknowledges the challenge of being truly objective with a source who grants extraordinary access to her personal life. That’s even harder when the source in question is a poor person. But even when they are the work of avowed advocates, journalistic accounts of poverty inform debate by offering a window into the kinds of lives led by those at the lower end of the income spectrum. They thus hold special interest for those interested in how social dysfunction, as distinct from wrongheaded economic policy, explains poverty.

Two new books that fall into this category are Troop 6000: The Girl Scout Troop That Began in a Shelter and Inspired the World and This Is All I Got: A New Mother’s Search for Home. They are about homelessness, specifically family homelessness. Homelessness has recently been a front-burner issue in several major cities, but mainly in the form of single-adult homelessness: panhandlers in New York’s subway system, people living out of tents in San Francisco and Los Angeles. In America, homeless families live in shelters, not on the streets. Advocates believe that the relative “invisibility” of family homelessness leads to public misunderstanding about who the homeless really are and how much they have in common with the non-homeless. 

Troop 6000 details the founding and growth of the first Girl Scout troop designed to serve homeless children in New York, and quite probably anywhere. The author, Nikita Stewart, originally broke the story of “Troop 6000” for the New York Times, triggering a surge of interest from charitable groups, politicians, and celebrities. Indeed, the book is as much about what it’s like to be famous for being homeless as about the typical experience of homelessness. Troop 6000 was, in some sense, a media creation. New York City officials pitched the story to the press, then promoted and helped expand the troop, including by giving it public funding. The goal was to create a more positive public conception of homeless New Yorkers. The backdrop is New York’s struggles to site new homeless shelters in neighborhoods that oppose them, a dispute that in the view of advocates, and Stewart, has mainly to do with selfishness and racism.

The story arc follows the personal travails of the troop’s founder and leader, Giselle Burgess. Though she works full-time throughout the book, including for the Girl Scouts of Greater New York, housing stability eludes Giselle. This is partly because of the extreme scarcity of low-rent apartments in New York City and partly because she has to support five children she had by three different men.

The protagonist of This Is All I Got also possesses great reserves of cunning and resilience, and is also a single mother. “Camila” (a pseudonym) has one child — the book follows the first year of his life —but her plight is more brutal, as she has no influential supporters or even really any family or friends to assist her. She’s pursuing a degree in criminal justice in hopes of securing a solid public-sector job.

Giselle and Camila are presented in a sense as exceptions that prove the rule. If they can’t make it — despite their industriousness, serious but realistic career goals, and lack of problems with mental illness or drugs — then our economic system truly must be rigged against upward mobility. These women display their competence by contending with welfare bureaucracies. In America, the poor probably have more experience with inflexible government regulations than the wealthy do. Imagine having to deal with the DMV for all your basic needs: housing, child care, income. The books argue that making it, in effect, a full-time job to be poor is 1) counterproductive, because it reduces the time available for getting out of poverty through work or education, 2) humiliating, thus suggestive of darker motivations rooted in oppression, and 3) harmful to the system’s reputation. But the welfare state would suffer a massive reputational blow if there were widespread fraud, which is what most rules exist to prevent. In This Is All I Got, Camila’s mother secures SSI income by bruising her daughter’s arms and claiming it happened through self-harm. Troop 6000 alleges that child-welfare regulations amount to a “Jane Crow” system of oversight. But it’s healthy to tolerate regulatory overreach in that context given how many homeless mothers have a penchant for abusive boyfriends. As the public-administration scholar Herbert Kaufman famously said, “One person’s red tape is another person’s protection.”

Members of homeless families are partly responsible for the above-mentioned invisibility of their condition because of the shame or stigma they feel over it. Troop 6000 links stigma to the “NIMBY” debate and suggests that neighborhood groups that oppose shelters might be more sympathetic if they realized the inhabitants would be working mothers and Girl Scouts, not the disturbed single men they encounter screaming obscenities on subway platforms. But the reason that we group such disparate types into the one category “homelessness” is because advocates wanted it that way. Back in the 1950s, “homelessness” was not a term in common use. We certainly did not apply terms such as “vagrant,” “tramp,” and “bum” to poor families. Advocates invented the term “homeless” in the late 1970s to focus the debate on increasing housing benefits, and deliberately included families to compel the public to “think of the children.”

“There but for the grace of God go I.” In some ways, all works of poverty journalism are making that argument. Yes, poor people may make mistakes, but so do middle- and upper-class people. The difference is that middle- and upper-class people have a larger margin of error. In this view, public policy should equalize Americans’ chances at escaping the errors of their youth. This Is All I Got is emphatic about the need for policy change, specifically the need to orient welfare systems to encourage education over work and to expand housing subsidies. Those solutions, though, carry risks, or simply may not work. Camila’s mother benefited from housing subsidies and yet that didn’t break her family’s cycle of intergenerational poverty and single parenthood or prevent her from living a life of gross irresponsibility. (This Is All I Got is also completely misleading in its claim that we do less to help the poor now than we did in the past.) This Is All I Got sneers at city welfare bureaucrats who try to steer their clients into work-experience programs, which often involve menial labor, instead of college. True, college is often worth it if you’re going to see it through. If you don’t, though, you run a serious risk of incurring not only considerable debt, but the opportunity cost of years that could have been spent building a career and professional network. Troop 6000 notes some homeless mothers’ problems with debt associated with boondoggle higher-education programs. Camila’s pursuit of higher education peters out by the end of This Is All I Got.

Books like these speak to a middle- and upper-class audience, e.g., New York Times readers, who are liberal but have never personally known someone who’s been homeless. In This Is All I Got, the author, Lauren Sandler, is forthright about the need for her and her readers to be mindful of their “privilege” in trying to judge homeless mothers’ decisions. Well, many middle- and upper-class people are aware that they themselves don’t run the tightest ship. They have too much credit-card debt. They don’t exercise as much oversight over their children’s education as they should. They know that luck, not just hard work, accounts for their status. But they also imagine that, were they to fall to the bottom, they would have no choice but to become more self-disciplined. Their virtue has never been tested, and perhaps never will be. But that doesn’t mean that they are wrong to believe that adversity should motivate one to reduce the amount of risk in one’s love life and personal finances, if for no other reason than simple self-interest.

In other words, the problem seems to be just as much the propensity to continue to make bad decisions as being weighed down by the legacy of the past. Having grown up surrounded by examples of women whose lives were nearly ruined by having children out of wedlock, including one’s own mother, how could one fail to avoid that fate? Why, while living in a homeless shelter, would you neglect to call in to work to check your schedule, knowing that it’s expected? Why would someone with a history of unemployment and homelessness just give up on a job without having anything else lined up?

This Is All I Got shows how incredibly lonely poverty can be. Camila’s family is amazingly cruel to her: the ignored texts, neglected graduations, Thanksgivings, Christmases, Mother’s Days. They can’t be bothered to show up for the baby’s baptism. As would be expected for a book about Girl Scouts, Troop 6000 emphasizes how civil society can sometimes be surprisingly rich in low-income communities. It, too, features domestic violence, depression, and unsympathetic members of extended families. And yet, Giselle’s burden is palpably lifted through the friends she makes in the Girl Scout community. The government hand behind Troop 6000’s success certainly makes it seem less spontaneous. At the same time, encouraging more Girl Scouting in poor urban communities seems like far from the worst use of government resources.

Stephen Eide is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal.

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