Two new books about homeless single mothers help to explain how social dysfunction relates to poverty.
Poverty 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.
Stephen Eide is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor of City Journal.
Photo by David McNew/Getty Images