If you have not read the “Invisible Child” series in the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/projects/2013/invisible-child/#/?chapt=1), you will find the story of a plucky child, Dasani, heartbreaking and riveting. She lives with her siblings in a homeless shelter It is exquisitely written by Andrea Elliott.
I wish Elliott had not framed her story with income inequality. Throughout, the story contrasts the enormous challenges and deprivations faced by Dasani (yes, she is named after the bottled water) with the signs of affluence in rapidly gentrifying Fort Greene, Brooklyn. The idea of inequality smothers rather than reveals why Dasani’s world is so painfully difficult.
Dasani, who stands in line for more than an hour for the chance to microwave a premade meal, can barely comprehend an upscale donut shop or specialty wine store. But without the great wealth the city has created over the last decade or so she would not go to a school good enough that she could consider it a refuge. She is able to practice pull-ups in a park that is at least in good repair and safe to use.
In North Philadelphia, amid streets far more battered than any in New York, I recently saw several libraries — all closed and as derelict as the blocks surrounding them. I passed a school I thought was abandoned, but then saw kids pouring out of it. The system has suffered draconian cuts and is trying to avert a death spiral.
Horrific as their lives are, Dasani and her family would have even fewer chances in most any American city or suburb that has a significant population of poor people. There’s been no serious engagement with issues of poverty since the 1970s. The Great Recession showed how broken our housing-finance system is, yet almost nothing got fixed. Dasani’s grandmother, one of the few stable influences in her life, loses her home to foreclosure and herself may become homeless. It is one of the reasons homelessness has exploded in New York and elsewhere.
Gentrification, seen in the series as an enemy, should bring the possibility of jobs and opportunity to families like Dasani’s. There are not policies in place to protect the low-income people who keep poor communities intact through the bad times, so they become victims, taxed out or priced out. Only a fraction of renters paying half or more of their income in rent (a punishing necessity in high-cost cities) can get exceedingly rare housing subsidies.
By contrast the federal tax code richly rewards owners (especially in high-income cities like New York) with deductions for mortgages and real-estate taxes that can cover a third of housing costs. That pushes prices up.
Cities cannot afford to spurn the wealthy because no one else is going to pay the bills. Philadelphia wishes it had more rich people. One urban expert several years ago made a list of cities that had become wealthy enough to “kick out” the poor. Never discussed openly, it is a practical necessity, however cruel, because poor people are a liability. Even New York in an era of extraordinary wealth cannot house its needy population alone. The Federal government at best offers almost no housing help (though New York gets much more than most), stingy food stamps, and stigmatizing welfare (though not, apparently, for Dasani’s family). There’s almost no focus on a route out of poverty for people and communities. Many states wash their hands.
Inequality registers most powerfully in real-estate costs, which have risen with startling speed in New York and affect people far up the income spectrum as well as those at the bottom. But it’s far from the whole story.