Saturday, December 14, 2013

Dasani's story and the inequality debate

The New York Times recently ran a series of articles profiling a 12 year old homeless girl (in the sense of not having a fixed address, not that she sleeps in the streets) named Dasani. The fact that she shares her name with that of a brand of bottled water is not a coincidence -- her mother was inspired after spotting the product on the shelves of her corner store. Her sister's name, Avianna, is derived from Evian. The mother's name? Chanel. This is only relevant in that names are a socioeconomic marker -- indeed, some parents go so far as to employ baby name consultants -- and the wrong name can impact one's employment prospects. If one is named after a bottle of water, it is not difficult to imagine that this could lead to all sorts of negative connotations making an already hard life even more difficult. 

Other items we learn about the family: Chanel is married to a man who goes by the name Supreme (unclear if this is his given name) with whom she has four children. Supreme brought to the family two other children from a prior marriage while Avianna and Dasani were from prior relationships as well, for a total of eight children. Mind you the cost of raising a child in a middle-class environment until age 18 is quickly approaching $250,000. We also learn that Supreme is on the hook for child support for two other children. Neither Chanel nor Supreme is employed, both are addicted to methadone (although  Supreme seeks treatment), and Chanel lacks even a GED.

Other details about their personal lives:

     On Dasani's diet:
The [citywide bus] strike has worn on for a month when, on Valentine’s Day, Dasani stops into a corner store outside McKinney. She scans the aisles before settling on an iced honey bun, a bag of nacho-flavored sunflower seeds and some red gummy bears — a rare $3 breakfast earned as part of her allowance for watching Baby Lele all weekend.
     On the family's money management skills:
Suddenly, Supreme leaps into the air. His monthly benefits have arrived, announced by a recording on his prepaid welfare phone. He sets off to reclaim his gold teeth from the pawnshop and buy new boots for the children at Cookie’s, a favored discount store in Fulton Mall. The money will be gone by week’s end. 
Supreme and Chanel have been scolded about their lack of financial discipline in countless meetings with the city agencies that monitor the family. 
But when that monthly check arrives, Supreme and Chanel do not think about abstractions like “responsibility” and “self-reliance.” They lose themselves in the delirium that a round of ice creams brings. They feel the sudden, exquisite release born of wearing those gold fronts again — of appearing like a person who has rather than a person who lacks.
Interestingly, the consequences of wasting even small amounts of money are not lost on Dasani:
Dasani sees the chasms of Fort Greene more plainly, reasoning that wealth belongs to “the whites” because “they save their money and don’t spend it on drinking and smoking.”
     On the family environment:
A few nights later, the children are roused by shouts and a loud crash. Uncle Josh has punched his hand through a window and is threatening to kill Uncle Lamont. 
Josh lunges at his brother with a knife. The men tumble to the floor as Chanel throws herself between them. Upstairs, the children cower and scream. 
Dasani calls out orders: “Nobody move! Let the adults handle it!” 
Sirens rattle the block. Josh is taken away in handcuffs as an ambulance races Lamont to the hospital with a battered eye. They had been fighting over a teenage girl.
Mom's aggression, which is probably not coincidental to Dasani's own proclivity for fighting seen throughout the piece:
Dasani has grown up hearing her mother’s stories of street-battle glory, and watching her in the throes of countless slug matches with anyone who crosses her, including the owner of a local laundromat. 
...When they reach Myrtle Avenue, Chanel goes searching for a beer at her favorite corner store. Dasani trails her. 
Inside, the short-order cook, a Mexican girl, stares at Chanel suspiciously. 
“Don’t look at me,” Chanel says. 
“You so nice, that’s why I see you,” the girl responds cockily. 
“You better watch that grill,” Chanel says. “I don’t want to scare you.” 
“You think you scare me?” the girl yells. 
“Let’s fight right now!” Chanel shouts. 
“Wait for me outside!” the girl calls back. 
Chanel moves toward her, reaching for a mop. 
“Mommy!” Dasani screams.
Now let's look at the environment in which the family operates, starting with the schools:
  • Miss Hester knows that students learn when they get excited. It bothers her that McKinney lacks the sophisticated equipment of other public schools. She shelled out more than $1,000 of her own money, as a single mother, to give her classroom a projector and document camera.
  • Dasani knows about charter schools. Her former school, P.S. 67, shared space with one. She never spoke to those children, whose classrooms were stocked with new computers. Dasani’s own school was failing by the time she left.
The description of the city-operated shelter in which the family lives is stomach-turning:
  • Over the last decade, city and state inspectors have cited Auburn for more than 400 violations — many of them repeated — including for inadequate child care, faulty fire protection, insufficient heat, spoiled food, broken elevators, nonfunctioning bathrooms and the presence of mice, roaches, mold, bedbugs, lead and asbestos.
  • Lately, it is the family’s sink, with its rotting wall and leaky pipe, that fails to get fixed. For weeks, the pipe drips through the night. Finally, Dasani is fed up. She crouches down and examines the pipe as her siblings watch. “Nobody thought about pushing it in and twisting it,” she says in her cocksure manner. A few quick jerks and she triumphs. The children squeal. It goes unremarked that here, in this shelter with a $9 million annual budget, operated by an agency with more than 100 times those funds, the plumbing has fallen to an 11-year-old girl.
All this despite the article elsewhere noting that the city spent $10 million in renovations and repairs on the facility during the Bloomberg administration. A couple of photos drive the picture home:

The dysfunction extends not only to the physical building, but the personnel operating the facility:
  • There is no place on the inspection forms for the most common complaint: the disrespect accorded to residents by the shelter staff. Were there such a box to check, it could never capture how these encounters reverberate for days, reinforcing the rock-bottom failure that Auburn represents. Even egregious incidents are sometimes mentioned in passing. One mother summarizes her grievance, at the top of the form, as “All of my belongs went in garbbage.” In explaining how her possessions were discarded, she mentions, tangentially, that her caseworker had “groped” her. She ends the complaint on a conciliatory note: “Peace.” The signature at the bottom belongs to Dasani’s mother, Chanel. After she filed the complaint in September 2011, the worker was taken off her case, but kept his job and recently got a raise. Chanel never told Dasani, for fear of passing on the shame she feels whenever she sees the man.
  • City officials declined to comment on the reports of sexual abuse [sexual predation and abuse at the shelter is repeatedly referenced in the article]...In the past decade, Auburn’s directors have fared well, receiving raises even as the shelter’s problems persisted. One former director, Susan Nayowith, was promoted to head of client advocacy at the Department of Homeless Services.
Lastly, this tidbit about Chanel's mother seems noteworthy:
[Chanel's mother] Joanie turned her life around after President Bill Clinton signed legislation in 1996 to end “welfare as we know it,” placing time limits and work restrictions on recipients of government aid. She got clean and joined a welfare-to-work program, landing a $22,000-a-year job cleaning subway cars for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. “This is the happiest day of my life,” she told Chanel.
  • While many on the left decry income inequality and the surging wealth of the top few percent -- indeed, Ezra Klein yesterday called the issue the "organizing economic concern of the American left" -- one cannot help but notice in the article that absolutely none of the misery experienced by Dasani's family has anything to do with American millionaires or billionaires. Rather, the vast majority of blame falls on the shoulders of Dasani's mother and stepfather and government-provided services such as the homeless shelter and public schools.  Discussions of endemic government mismanagement and individuals experiencing bad outcomes as a consequence of their own bad decisions, however, does not appear to be what most inequality worriers are interested in.
  • That the publicly-funded but privately-managed charter school has far better equipment than the publicly-managed and funded school Dasani attends suggests that charter schools are a welcome improvement rather than threat to public education. The fact that one of Dasani's teachers has to spend $1,000 of her own money at a time when funding for NYC public schools was surging also speaks towards resource waste and misallocation. 
  • If one believes that government spending is key to improving the fortunes of the poor then income inequality is arguably a good thing, as it subjects more income to higher tax rates than if income were more evenly divided.
  • The condition of the city-run homeless shelter is shoddy and the behavior of its staff despicable. But remember, letting private charity and civil society take the lead on the provision of such services instead of government is libertarian crazy talk.

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