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Eye on the News

Bob McManus
How Do You Solve a Problem Like Dasani?
It’s not for lack of trying.
11 December 2013

Invisible Child,” the New York Times’s 29,000-word account of the tragically chaotic life of a rootless 11-year-old girl, is a remarkable piece of work. It is a vivid portrait, unfolding over five days, of a wholly dysfunctional family hard-pressed to cope with the city’s social-services system, to say nothing of life itself. The reporter, Andrea Elliott, has a finely tuned instinct for detail and a rare ability to understate obviously sincere outrage. She’s an accomplished muckraker, and that’s not a bad thing. Her reporting commands attention, and this series of articles deserves the respect it is getting. Still, an agenda shows through: not for nothing did the Times spend 15 months on “Invisible Child”— an undertaking riddled with the same misunderstanding of New York City’s economy that animated Bill de Blasio’s “tale of two New Yorks” mayoral campaign.

The series lacks critical perspective. Yes, poverty and wealth exist side-by-side in New York City, sometimes on the same block. But they always have, and Elliott’s account essentially amounts to an update. Though clearly intended as a call for dramatic action of some sort, “Invisible Child” is pretty much devoid of prescriptions—and of hope, which was abandoned long ago by the drug-addled parents of Dasani (yes, she was named for a bottled-water brand). Elliott is honest enough to characterize Dasani’s circumstances as “largely” of her parents’ making—the hell-hole homeless shelter that the child and her seven siblings must endure; the intermittent hunger; the shame shelter kids feel during the school day. Indignity is the product of profound parental dysfunction, and it defines Dasani’s life. Absent massive municipal intervention, the series implies, the child will be walking the same path as her parents soon enough.

But can city government save Dasani? As Elliott never hesitates to remind readers, Dasani is not unique. There are 22,000 homeless children in New York City. It is, she writes, “the highest number since the Great Depression,” though one never learns whether this is a disproportionately large number relative to other major cities. This is a critical omission for a newspaper series that clearly means to lay ultimate responsibility for Dasani’s circumstances on the steps 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,” Elliott writes. “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.’”

That was the wrong thing for Bloomberg to say, absurd on its face. It also helps mask a critical shortcoming in Elliott’s calculus. “Invisible Child” doesn’t really take into account the 2008 recession—the worst since that same Great Depression produced the homelessness records the reporter now uses as a benchmark. It’s also impossible to know how many children would be in the shelters today absent the Bloomberg administration’s initiatives. The recession corrodes the necessary frame of reference. One other thing: it’s hard to see how “stagnant wages” contributed to Dasani’s dismal predicament. Neither of her parents has worked in years.

Without question, New York is a tough town in which to make a living. It suffered mightily in the 2008 recession, but by most measures it has more than recovered. It’s a fundamentally prosperous, functional, humane, and—above all—safe city. On a basic level, New York is a victim of its own success. People want to live here, and they do. Money wants to migrate here, and it does. That’s why a studio apartment rents for $2,300 a month or more in Brooklyn. But “Invisible Child” lacks appreciation or even awareness of the struggles of two generations of New York City mayors to deal with the problem of chronic homelessness. The bill for providing shelter and related social services will exceed $5 billion this year. This is no small sum, and one would be hard-pressed to find a comparable effort elsewhere.

Can the city do better? Certainly Bill de Blasio won the election in large measure on promises to transform housing policies. But permanent solutions eluded Ed Koch (who built record amounts of low-income housing), David Dinkins, Rudy Giuliani, and Michael Bloomberg. De Blasio shouldn’t kid himself about the degree of difficulty here. The weak economy persists, and New York is a savagely expensive place to live. Many homeless families—nobody really knows how many—are economic refugees of sorts. But most will find a way out of their difficulties through work and the safety net.

For the Dasanis of the city, though, optimism is hard to come by. They are prisoners of familial dysfunction. Tailoring sweeping reforms to the needs of people who live wholly on the margins rarely yields sound, broad-based policy. Dysfunction will defeat good intentions just about every time.

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