One homeless girl

My latest wonkblog column explores homelessness issues:

My first foray into social services was as a night volunteer in a homeless shelter. I particularly remember one bright and vivacious 12-year-old girl. The two of us sometimes talked during dinner. As we talked, her little brother would buzz around us, using language and gestures more suited to the Navy than to his preschool. Her parents were puzzlingly limited. I would sometimes help them with simple tasks such as assembling their children’s Christmas toys. They angered easily, with predictable results. In the middle of all this family chaos was this calm and resilient young girl. She made me a fantastic playful picture depicting a punked-out teenager with multiple piercings. I had no idea how to help her.

I thought about her as I read the initial installments of Andrea Elliott’s amazing, heartbreaking New York Times profile of another middle-schooler named Dasani, who lives in a homeless shelter called Auburn Family Residence, in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene section. Dasani shares a 520-square-foot room with her parents and her seven siblings. She’s one of 280 children in this huge and forbidding structure. I don’t know that we’re sure how to help her, either… (more here).

Space prevented me from exploring one other issue: the simple role of bad luck. Dasani’s story includes savage turns of fate that so easily might have turned out differently. I’m tempted to dismiss the importance of bad luck. Families living near the water line have a way of conspiring in their own misfortune. If Chanel wasn’t arrested on one day, she might easily have been arrested on another occasion—for example the day she shoplifted Dasani’s birthday cake.

But bad luck does actually matter. The worst twist of fate concerned Chanel’s mother, Dasani’s grandmother, Joanie. Stably employed as a municipal worker after her own struggles with addiction. Joanie provided one of the very few sources of personal and financial stability in Dasani’s life. When this indispensable woman died of leukemia at age 55, her family never really recovered. “Why did she have to go away so quickly?” Dasani asked. I found myself asking the same question.

Comments

  1. RL says

    “Families living near the water line have a way of conspiring in their own misfortune.”

    This seems uncharacteristically uncharitable of you. Families living “near the water line” suffer for their misfortunes in ways that families living further from it do not.

      • Venice says

        But bad luck does actually matter.

        The role of chance in creating stability or instability, and the role of instability in creating more instability, cannot be overstated. It’s impossible to pull yourself up by your bootstraps when you’re tumbling down the stairs, or being swept to sea by a tsunami.

    • John Beaty says

      Except that I’ve seen this over and over again: People on the edge making choices that damage their lives even further. I think the point is that people living near the waterline don’t realize how much seemingly insignificant actions on their part can have disastrous results because of their precarious circumstances. But trying to help them understand this is one of the most frustrating experiences I’ve ever had.

      • Venice says

        Having worked with poor people for decades, I know that their choices often complicate things. But the truth is that they’ve got less room for error than anyone else. A middle class guy whose bad choice costs him $5k is going to feel it, but not be drowned by it. A poor person whose bad choice costs him $500 might become homeless as a result.

        We have a culture that urges people to choices that damage their lives even further. Think of the janitor who is offered a shot at homeownership with the assurance that real estate values only go up and a negatively amortized teaser rate that makes the deal just barely affordable, and the promise that he’ll be able to refi based on the increased value of the land when the rate adjusts upwards. After all, that’s how Donald Trump does it…

  2. politicalfootball says

    I’m tempted to dismiss the importance of bad luck.

    We all are, of course. Carried to extremes, you wind up being a Republican or the the New York Post. All of our lives are ruled by luck in ways that we hardly ever consider.

    • Brett Bellmore says

      Absolutely. Luck is like the waves on the sea, personal and cultural endowments are like a sail to the wind. The sail won’t bring you to port if there’s no wind, and a big enough wave will always be able to founder you. But you’re still better off with a sail, than floating in a barrel, and after you’ve crossed the ocean to another continent, it’s fatuous for somebody to credit it all to “luck”, just because bad luck could have stopped you.

      We are all subject to luck, bad and good, and at it’s extremes it can undo anybody. But, when it is not extreme, it is not luck that determines our fates.

      The poor are like somebody who’s already right by the rocks on a bad sea. One strong wave, and they’ve had it. But, as you might expect, you’re more likely to end up by the rocks in the first place if you set to sea in a barrel, or don’t know how to set a sail. Luck can easily undo the poor, but the poor are, disproportionately, subject to poor cultural and personal endowments. If they weren’t, odds are they wouldn’t be poor. That’s just the truth, no matter how impolitic it is to say it: While bad luck can make anybody poor, it isn’t really luck that’s responsible for most poor people being poor.

      But that’s not to say we shouldn’t pull them off the rocks. It’s to say that they need some lessons in seamanship, or they’ll end up back on them again. I think that’s where we really fall down with the poor in this country. Nobody has to starve in America, but do we do much to equip the poor to stop being poor?

      No, we don’t.

      • politicalfootball says

        when it is not extreme, it is not luck that determines our fates.

        This is what I mean, of course. If you are unable to recognize your good fortune in having been born a white male in the United States in the last century (I realize I’m making assumptions here), you’re not going to be able to think usefully about luck. Your “cultural and personal endowments” are overwhelmingly a function of luck. Put yourself in the position of the median human being throughout human history, and you’re not likely to have accomplished the things that you have, even if we assume that your genetic inheritance is not a function of luck.

        It’s a paradox that conservatives have trouble with, though in your comment you make a serious effort at understanding: We are best off if we act on the assumption that we are the masters of our own destiny, even though we obviously are not. Most of my success in life – and yours, too – would be impossible absent luck and the work of other people. No man is an island. It takes a village. You didn’t build that.

        • Brett Bellmore says

          It’s a problem liberals have, thinking that unless you have absolute control, you’re a leaf in the wind, with no control at all. That, just because you need other people, you need them every second in everything you do, you think nobody does anything themselves.

          Not everything takes a village. Much of the time you did build that. People might not be islands, but they damned well are peninsulas.

          The worst thing you can do, is tell somebody they have no influence over their own fate. They stop trying, and if they don’t try, they don’t succeed, even if success does require being in a society of other people.

          • Betsy says

            I agree with a lot of what you said, but I think we all live on the mainland.

            Especially little 10-year-old girls, one I know in particular.

          • FuzzyFace says

            The worst thing you can do, is tell somebody they have no influence over their own fate.

            Agreed. Or even that most of the reason for their current situation is somebody else’s responsibility. Even if it is true that others could do more for them than they could for themselves, it is better to encourage them to focus on what they can do – and not what is out of their control. That’s the demagogues’ trick: it’s not your fault, you’re poor because somebody else is cheating you, give me your support/donations/votes and I’ll hurt the sons of bitches in your name. Lots of people have ridden to power on such tactics, and ultimately did little to help their supporters in the long run.

            Teaching people to see what they can do for themselves is much more likely to lead to success.

          • Hackneyed Strawman says

            The worst thing you can do, is tell somebody they have no influence over their own fate.

            Yes! Yes! Yes!
            Thank you for this piece of hard won glibertarian wisdom…

            Why starting right now I will stop telling people that they are powerless in their lives!
            Like everyone, I’ve been doing this everyday for all my years….

          • Venice says

            Not everything takes a village. Much of the time you did build that.

            Right. Don’t know about you, but I create the raw materials, extract them, get them to my factory which I built by myself and power by myself, and then I ship them to myself because I don’t need no stinkin’ village to buy my stuff.

            Even Jesus Christ had a family, a village and a nation. Of course, that was before I created my own personal computer and used it to talk to myself on my own internet…

          • Pamela D says

            >>Not everything takes a village. Much of the time you did build that. People might not be islands, but they damned well are peninsulas. The worst thing you can do, is tell somebody they have no influence over their own fate. They stop trying, and if they don’t try, they don’t succeed, even if success does require being in a society of other people.<<

            Really? What *doesn't* take a village? What doesn't utilize free and good public education, for example, and the time of not-working to attend it?

            Which is why raising the minimum wage is such a good idea: it allows the poor to get ahead by their own hard work. It puts a levee by "the water line." A decent paycheck is not a handout. And in the long run, a living wage is cheaper for wealthy taxpayers like me than social programs.

            In my youth, all full time workers could maintain themselves and their families (even black domestics and janitors.) That's not true anymore, and how can a nation be called "great" or "exceptional" when full-time hard-working people still can't afford to house and feed themselves?

          • Brett Bellmore says

            “Which is why raising the minimum wage is such a good idea: it allows the poor to get ahead by their own hard work.”

            I’m not sure how you get ahead by your own work while unemployed, which is the practical effect of raising the minimum wage for people whose labor doesn’t actually contribute enough to the productive enterprise to be worth the higher wage.

            Now, there ARE things you could do to help the poor to be more employable. Like getting them out of places where the unemployment rate is particularly high, (Why pay people to stay where there aren’t any jobs?) to places where they might actually find work. Teaching them a valuable skill. NOT importing unskilled laborers from other countries to compete with them.

            But telling potential employers that they aren’t allowed to hire the poor for what their labor is actually worth? You don’t boost somebody up a ladder by cutting off the lower rungs.

          • FuzzyFace says

            In my youth, all full time workers could maintain themselves and their families (even black domestics and janitors.)

            Really? This is interesting, as it is a claim of objective fact, and should therefore be testable. If this is true, then sure it must be the case that during the time period in question, nobody ever needed to rely on more than one income, as long as it was full-time. No family ever needed more than one earner. I am skeptical, but there should be a way to prove or disprove the claim. Are you saying that this held true in general for the past, or just for a specific, short time period?

          • Venice says

            In my youth, all full time workers could maintain themselves and their families (even black domestics and janitors.)

            Yep. My father, 27 married with two kids, was able to buy a home on the single income of a junior accountant. Our suburban neighborhood was solidly middle class, my friend’s dads were: mechanic, telephone lineman, aerospace maintenance engineer, insurance salesman, bookkeeper, warehouseman, etc. I knew only two moms who worked outside the home, and one of those was the sole income for their household.

            My mom never worked outside the home, and my dad put 6 kids through parochial schools and then college. We all finished our undergraduate education debt-free.

            What changed is this: Wealth that had been spread broadly across society got vacuumed up by an increasingly small percentage. By the 1990s single-income households were found among the poor (single mothers, generally) and the wealthy, double-income families were the norm for the rest of us. In response conservatives railed about the decline in family values and liberals ranted about affordable child care, but to talk of wealth inequality was to engage in “class warfare” and to “punish success.”

            To be sure, the post-war economic consensus lasted only a few decades. Its benefits were taken for granted, and thus the consensus that created the broad middle class was easily dismantled in the name of “self-interest.”

  3. James Wimberley says

    Brett: “when it is not extreme, it is not luck that determines our fates.” It’s nothing to do with the extremes of the distribution. Luck operates all the time at the poker table of life, not just for royal flushes or busted hands. At least you are making the effort to hold both true ideas in your mind at the same time, not the false dichotomy between “it’s all luck” and “it’s all choices”.

    Fortune disfavours the unprepared mind. But the propensity to make good decisions, acquired from nature and nurture, is itself largely a matter of luck.

    • FuzzyFace says

      “But the propensity to make good decisions, acquired from nature and nurture, is itself largely a matter of luck.”

      If you mean, luck to have been born to parents who can teach you, and to live in a community with strong pro-success values, I agree. It makes a big difference if your environment is stable. If your parents are spending most of their time dealing with addition of one kind or another, if your father is never around, it is very hard to learn the kinds of things that will let you get ahead in life. If all we do is hand the poor money, we keep them from starving, but we don’t really enable them to escape poverty. That’s hard, and there are very few successful models of how to do it.

      • James Wimberley says

        A very nice Freudian typo: “If your parents are spending most of their time dealing with addition of one kind or another…” Endless addition to make ends meet is quite as bad as addiction.

        Prudence is a character trait in which genes obviously matter as well as upbringing. It’s worth noting that prudent is a narrow interpretation of good. Guaranteeing your brother’s bank loan to set up a vegetarian restaurant in the meat-packing district is imprudent and may well become a “bad decision”. But taking financial risks for your family is generally thought morally admirable, and those who won’t are judged harshly.

  4. Tony P. says

    It’s a problem liberals have, thinking that unless you have absolute control, you’re a leaf in the wind, with no control at all.

    It’s more like a problem that libertarians have, thinking that anything less than personal sovereignty amounts to serfdom.

    –TP

  5. politicalfootball says

    I was only trying to say something simple and obvious, which I will now repeat: “All of our lives are ruled by luck in ways that we hardly ever consider.”

    And, of course, I predicted Brett’s and Fuzzyface’s inability to process my words, which I also repeat: “We are best off if we act on the assumption that we are the masters of our own destiny.”

    • J. Michael Neal says

      “We are best off if we act on the assumption that we are the masters of our own destiny.”

      Sorry, but I am not better off thinking that I’m not qualified for any of the couple of thousand jobs I’ve applied for over the last eight years, from internal audit and financial analyst to retail clerk and delivering pizzas.

      • politicalfootball says

        Again, as predicted, a complete inability to process the words I wrote. It’s always very weird to witness this. J. Michael clearly knows how to read, and yet some combinations of words just don’t compute.

        • FuzzyFace says

          Hmm… you predicted that Brett and I wouldn’t be able to process them, not J. Michael :)

          But, I will confess to some confusion, so maybe I am indeed having trouble processing them. I see you as saying essentially that we should take responsibility for our own fate as much as possible, while recognizing that sometimes luck has an impact. If so, I don’t see any reason to disagree. I can certainly point to incidents in my life and that of my kids where luck played a part. Possibly we should invoke a common saying about sports: good teams make their own luck, which is a shorthand for noting that you can see good luck as opportunity, which can be missed or utilized, and that bad luck follows often from poor preparation and planning.

          Have I misread you?

        • J. Michael Neal says

          Then I have no idea what you are trying to say. On the face of it, you want me to assume that I am the master of a destiny that has left me unemployed for eight years despite spending $40,000 over that time gaining job skills that I was told would be helpful in, you know, getting a job. You admit that that isn’t true, but I can’t decipher your comment in any way other than that I’m supposed to think all of it is my fault anyway.

          • FuzzyFace says

            If you assume that you are the master of your destiny, you believe that there must be something that you can do to make things better. That doesn’t mean that you have total control – just that your chances of improving things are better if you try to do things than if you rely on other people doing them for you. This is something of a lesson that a manager for whom I once worked used to hammer at us. He would tell us to downplay the problems that we could not control and focus on what we could control.

            There are at least two different ways that you can take that. One, “it’s my fault” becomes an excuse for self-blaming. That’s not useful at all. The other, “it’s my opportunity,” becomes a search for something that, if you could think of it, would give you a chance to move ahead.

            Another way to see it, perhaps, is to recognize that there is nobody in the world who is going to care more about your situation than you will, so hoping somebody else will step in to save you without you doing something isn’t going to be productive. That doesn’t mean that nobody will help you, only that you have to take the steps to get them to do so.

            The “it’s not my fault” approach has the advantage that you can console yourself with it – but leaves you no way forward. It’s like drinking to drown your sorrows. It eases the pain but leaves you no better off in the long run.

          • J. Michael Neal says

            Your problem is assuming that people can treat this in only a forward looking manner. You’re dead wrong. There is no way that most people can say, “I am the master of my destiny,” going forward without also applying it to the past. If I am the master of my destiny, then there is NO other conclusion but that I am responsible for where I am now.

            Another way to see it, perhaps, is to recognize that there is nobody in the world who is going to care more about your situation than you will, so hoping somebody else will step in to save you without you doing something isn’t going to be productive. That doesn’t mean that nobody will help you, only that you have to take the steps to get them to do so.

            Bullshit. Absolutely, $^&@#%$ bullshit. I’m not asking someone to do anything for me without my doing something. I am asking someone to give me a #@&@%#^ job. And the simple truth is that I have eight years that tell me that none of you !@#$%^&*$^@%$ have both the ability and the inclination to help me. I’ve tried all of the steps to get them to do so and the all of them have refused.

            If I really believed that I was the master of my own destiny then I would have no one to blame but myself.

  6. deathsinger says

    On your blog, you wrote:

    How difficult is it to install six more microwave ovens?

    In a building that is over 100 years old, probably not as easy as you think. The building is probably not wired with enough capacity to just plug 15 AMP appliances into every outlet. Probably the reason that the facility tries to take Chanel’s microwave is just that, if too many appliances like that get plugged in the wiring/circuit (maybe old style fuses) can’t handle the load.

    Simple solutions like your suggestion rarely exist.

  7. EB says

    While I’m a liberal and in favor of a strong safety net and a much stronger jobs policy, I need to point out that people who start out in the same family (or the same race, economic class, gender, nationality, etc) can end up with very different life outcomes, and some of that difference is in fact based on different decision making, different levels of impulse control, different ability to cooperate with relatives and friends, and so on. This is a story I see over and over in my extended family, which started out solid working class and now includes people in the underclass, working class, and middle class. So while we should never build a world view that claims that people are poor because they are just inadequate as people, we should not pretend that personal characteristics play no role when people fall into poverty (or don’t succeed in escaping from it).

  8. politicalfootball says

    we should not pretend that personal characteristics play no role

    I’m curious to whom you are responding. Who in this thread is pretending this?

    • Brett Bellmore says

      Everybody who attacked me for pointing out that they do play a role, that life outcomes are the result of a combination of personal characteristics and luck? And that one consequence of this fact is that you must expect those with poor life outcomes to be disproportionately those with harmful personal characteristics. Just as those with good life outcomes will disproportionately be those who had productive personal characteristics.

      IOW, while it’s not always the fault of the poor that they’re poor, it frequently is. Unless you’re going to abstract from people everything that makes them different from other people, and attribute that to “luck”, making the contrary conclusion tautologically true.

      • FuzzyFace says

        IOW, while it’s not always the fault of the poor that they’re poor, it frequently is.

        I think you might underestimate how difficult it is to get out of poverty when you’re born into it. Coping with poverty often means developing a lot of bad habits that make it harder to get out. Those of us who grew up middle class had parents who taught us delayed gratification, basic budgeting, the importance of diligence and politeness, focus on school and many other things that poor parents aren’t always able to teach their children. Most of us had present fathers who worked regularly and acted as role models – a lot of poor kids don’t have that. So how do poor kids develop those skills? Sometimes they get lucky to have Moms who are particularly strong, sometimes they have teachers who take an interest. But a lot of that is, frankly, luck. A real anti-poverty program would have to find ways to address that.

      • J. Michael Neal says

        I would point out that there are lots of times when personal characteristics arise because of luck. I’m autistic. That’s certainly a personal characteristic, or at least is the cause of a lot of them, but I don’t see how having that characteristic is the result of anything but luck. So your argument that personal characteristics play a major role in outcomes is not in and of itself any sort of refutation of the idea that luck plays a major role in life outcomes.

        As it happens, I agree with you that luck is not the only thing going on. Personal characteristics, many of which are not the result of luck, do play an important role. But the reason people are disagreeing with you is because you dismiss luck as being all that important. Sure, you offer the occasional aside to it being involved and then go right back to making arguments that only make sense if you consider luck to be irrelevant.

        • Brett Bellmore says

          Personally, I’ve got moderate Aspergers, according to the tests. I suppose you could call that “luck”, too. Actually adapts me well to my job as an engineer, but it’s also why I married so late in life. Took me that long to get my social interaction algorithms polished enough to pass. ;)

          But, as I say, you have to draw a line at some point in declaring the characteristics which make people differ from each other “luck”, or else you just tautologically declare everything to be luck, because the fine structure constant could have been a little different, in which case there’d be no such thing as life.

          Once people start making choices, I don’t see the point in dismissing those choices as the product of luck, just because a different person would have made different choices. Indeed, it’s because not everything is a product of chance that there’s any point in planning and acting, in making decisions.

          And so, we should not dismiss the outcomes of people’s choices as “luck”, for it is very important that people make correct choices. That’s the real problem the poor have, most of them: They are poorly equipped to make the right choices in life, due to a severe lack of cultural endowments. (Their parents didn’t teach them by example how not to be poor.)

          Rather, we really need to find a way to remedy this lack of life skills. Rather than papering it over by continually feeding them other people’s money…

          • J. Michael Neal says

            I don’t think it’s nearly as clear cut as you make out. There are lots of ways in which that’s true but here’s one concrete example. In 2007, trying to improve my chances of getting a job, I decided to start taking accounting classes that ended up with me having a master’s degree in it two years later. At the time I started, there was huge demand for accountants and that looked like a good choice for the skills I should pick up, particularly since I already had training in finance and I’m really good with math.

            Then, once I was far down that path, it became apparent that the recession had hammered the accounting industry. Suddenly, a profession that had desperately needed more people got crushed and the job market was full of unemployed accountants with both the degree I had and experience that I didn’t. Anyone who wanted to hire an accountant had their pick of lots of 24-year olds fresh out of school and also their pick of a veritable flood of people in their 30s and 40s with years of experience. So my job prospects as a 40 year old fresh out of school went from good to hopeless for reasons that were both out of my control and not really predictable in advance.

            Becoming an accountant was a choice that I made but I have trouble seeing how the outcome I ended up with is the result of anything but luck.

          • Brett Bellmore says

            There’s a reason I keep using words like “most”: I’m making generalizations which I am perfectly aware, (And have made clear from the start!) are not universally true.

          • Brett Bellmore says

            The only thing I’ve advocated here is that we develop some kind of education to make up for lack of cultural endowment among the poor. Where does the universal part come in?

  9. Rob in CT says

    The biggest bit of luck I ever had was being born to my parents (or, when I’m feeling snarky, I put this as “the best decision I ever made was chosing my parents.”). The value of being born their son is basically impossible to overstate. I’ve had other bits of good luck in my life, from not being caught when involved in some teenaged mischief to being lucky in love. I’ve had some bumps, too, but nothing I couldn’t absorb.

    Realizing that is what led to my liberalism. I’ll spare you the details.

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