Andrea Elliott, in her NY Times article “Invisible Child,” articulates the disheartening existence of a family living on the meager support of government welfare. She invites her readers to look through the eyes of Dasani, the family’s 11-year-old girl.
The family has a complex relationship with the welfare programs that both keep them afloat and keep their situation hopeless.
Liberals advocate that welfare programs are designed to help the least fortunate and that they demonstrate a society’s compassion. However, sometimes too much compassion by the state can devolve into what recovering drug addicts would call “enabling.” Moreover, the “compassionate environment” provided by government often turns out to be wretched.
In the early years of America, welfare for the poor was called “charity” and was provided by volunteers and religious groups. The recipients knew it was temporary, and they were generally grateful that the community helped them in a time of need. However, they knew that they had to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, get back on their feet, and come to fend for themselves as quickly as possible. In the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal policies introduced the federal government’s takeover of welfare programs. Later, in the 1960s, President Lyndon B. Johnson took up the torch with his “War on Poverty” and worked toward his “Great Society.” His administration codified welfare programs, giving more and more assistance to those living under the government-determined federal poverty level.
Of course, all of this begot government-assisted housing, food stamps, child care, and Medicaid. Moreover, it created a permanent class of dependents on these programs. Unfortunately, Dasani and her family are now part of this class of dependents, and her government-ornamented landscape is run-down and depressing.
Dasani and her family live in the Auburn Family Residence in NYC, a dilapidated hospital converted into residences to provide housing for the homeless. Here 280 children live — only a fraction of the 22,000 “invisible” homeless children living in New York. Dasani lives with her mother, stepfather, and seven siblings in a 520-square-foot room. Andrea Elliott writes:
Among the city’s 152 family shelters, Auburn became known as a place of last resort, a dreaded destination for the chronically homeless. City and state inspectors have repeatedly cited the shelter for deplorable conditions, including sexual misconduct by staff members, spoiled food, asbestos exposure, lead paint and vermin. Auburn has no certificate of occupancy, as required by law, and lacks an operational plan that meets state regulations. Most of the shelter’s smoke detectors and alarms have been found to be inoperable.
This sordid environment takes its toll on Dasani, who is prone to anger and has been reprimanded for it by her teachers. Dasani feels suffocated by her existence and her crowded home, saying, “Sometimes it feels like too many bodies sharing the same air. There’s no space to breathe because they breathe up all the oxygen.”
Although Dasani is a good student, a good athlete, and has trained as a dancer most of her young life, she will have to overcome the poor example set by her role models. Her mother, Chanel, and her stepfather, Supreme, are constantly fighting about money. Supreme hasn’t worked in years, unless selling pirated DVDs on the street is “working.” Chanel use to be a janitor but no longer works. She occasionally sells miscellaneous items that she buys and marks up from discount stores.
Supreme keeps tight control of the family’s welfare income and the survivor benefits he receives from the death of his first wife. Both are looking forward to January when they can file to get their earned-income tax credits, which, in their case, amount to thousands of dollars.
Recently, Dasani accompanied Chanel while Chanel was buying some beer. Chanel decided to pick a fight with an employee of the liquor store. When the owner came out to stop it, Chanel screamed, “I’ll crack her with a stick!” The owner of the store removed Chanel from the store. As Dasani followed her mother out, she told the employee, “She gonna knock you stupid, Chinese lady.” The owner of the store said to Dasani, “Don’t use those words; you’re not supposed to turn out like your mother.”
Unfortunately for Dasani, she just might. The pattern of welfare has been repeating itself for over 50 years, and there doesn’t appear to be any end in sight under the present administration.