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OPINION - An "It-takes-a-village" failure... it takes effective parents

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU)  In New York City, the talk of the town is not the new mayor Bill de Blasio. He’s a socialist once-removed… a redistributionist. His ideas are straight-forward and boring.

Everyone in New York is talking about 11-year-old Dasani . She’s a homeless girl whose life has been documented for the last year-and-a-half by a writer and photographer from the New York Times. Her story has been printed, long-form, in an exhausting and frustrating-to-read five-part series.

Dasani’s story dovetails with Mayor de Blasio’s rants about the wealthy and powerful in the city. Dasani, her mother, step-father, and her six siblings live in a single room in an emergency shelter in the Fort Greene neighborhood in Brooklyn. It’s a neighborhood in transition – for the good. Fort Greene is sandwiched next to Brooklyn Heights, one of the most affluent neighborhoods in the city where people look across the East River and see the Manhattan skyline each night, and Bedford-Stuyvesant, a rough run-down slum. With rising real-estate values upper-class yuppies are finding their way into Foot Greene and are buying up old brownstone apartments, renovating them into expensive urban dwellings. Two blocks from Dasani’s shelter is a townhouse that just sold for $1.2-million. The working class poor can no longer afford the rents in the neighborhood.

Dasani’s story is interesting reading. She’s a smart kid. She tries to hide that she’s a “shelter kid” – which is a step below the “project kids” who live in permanent housing nearby. You get the sickening feeling of wasted human potential. She’s plucky. She sees the inequality in her world. She’d do well if her situation was better.

The story is told through the lens of ‘we need to do more for this child’. It’s the wrong conclusion. This is a story of government failure. Consider: New York City spends $1.4-million on the shelter that her family lives in, but the city still hires security guards who molest female residents. The shelter’s budget only includes money for two microwaves in the cafeteria… so 120 people heat up their dinners two-at-a-time. There are roaches, rats, mattresses with springs poking through and leaking pipes that all go unfixed. The janitor refuses to remove mice traps – he tells residents to pick them up themselves. Somehow the family still has a flat screen TV, and two Obama-phones. Dasani goes to a well-staffed magnet school for the arts that’s two blocks away. But she’s chronically late and gets into a lot of fights. The biggest issue at the school is they may have to share the upper floor of their building with a new charter school. The school sends kids on field trips to the Mayoral mansion and to Washington DC. Dasani has access to counseling; her mother takes her tribe on the bus and pockets the $10-per-child that the city offers for cab fare. The New York Times estimates the city pays about $400,000 in welfare costs for the family.

And the problem with Dasani’s situation is obvious to everyone: her parents. Her mom and stepdad are both recovering crack addicts. While trying to get clean, they’ve both become addicted to methadone. She babysits her brothers and sisters while mom and dad are “zoned out” after treatment. Neither has a job – they’re not even looking. Dad sometimes doesn’t get out of bed in the morning, and disappears from the family several days at a time. When he is around he beats his kids with a belt. Mom gets into street fights if she feels ‘disrespected’ and steals food from the neighborhood grocery store while her kids wait outside. Social services monitors the family, knowing there’s a history of substance abuse, but a second-chance is always given. Food stamps and public assistance debit cards arrive once a month… to be squandered on beer and fast food. The kids' clothing comes from dumpsters.

The hopeful moment is Dasani’s story is in late January, when her family files their taxes. They qualify for a huge earned income tax credit (which is nothing more than welfare-via-the-tax-code). Mom and stepdad will be getting almost $5,000 – enough for a security deposit on an apartment and start a new life. It doesn’t happen. Stepdad’s refund is seized by the City of New York – he owes child support for three other children who live with other women. Mom’s money is wasted on fashionable boots for the kids and a birthday party. A month later only a few hundred dollars remain.

All is not lost – at the end of Dasani’s story the city finds her family permanent housing; a walk-up apartment in Harlem. Dasani is an athletic kid, and she gets involved with a street team that’s doing promotional work for Nike. (Her sponsor starts to pay her in Nike gear after learning that her stepdad takes whatever money she earns.) She might escape this generational poverty if she stays off drugs and doesn’t get pregnant. Maybe.

There’s a lesson in Dasani’s story, and I’m certain it’s lost on New York’s new mayor. “The village” from the “It-takes-a-village” metaphor is spending incredible amounts of money and is providing wide and deep resources for this impoverished family. They do nothing to help themselves. These parents are failures by any and every yardstick. And until a child has effective adults in their life, their situation is hopeless and unchangeable.

Chris Conley
1.7.14 

Image: Reuters: Dasani Coates New York City inauguration 2014