December 9, 2013 at 9:20 am
It's hard not to be moved by the deeply reported story of Dasani, an 11-year-old who lived for three years with her parents and seven siblings in a single room of a fetid homeless shelter in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.
Yet the Times takes a story of poverty and turns it into something else — an ideological axe-grinding piece that seeks to fit Dasani's story into what Times editors have promised will be "a new focus on inequality" to match the agenda of the city's mayor-elect Bill de Blasio.
So the Times article includes passages like this:
she belongs to a vast and invisible tribe of more than 22,000 homeless children in New York, the highest number since the Great Depression, in the most unequal metropolis in America.
In the short span of Dasani's life, her city has been reborn. The skyline soars with luxury towers, beacons of a new gilded age. More than 200 miles of fresh bike lanes connect commuters to high-tech jobs, passing through upgraded parks and avant-garde projects like the High Line and Jane's Carousel. Posh retail has spread from its Manhattan roots to the city's other boroughs. These are the crown jewels of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's long reign, which began just seven months after Dasani was born.
In the shadows of this renewal, it is Dasani's population who have been left behind. The ranks of the poor have risen, with almost half of New Yorkers living near or below the poverty line. Their traditional anchors — affordable housing and jobs that pay a living wage — have weakened as the city reorders itself around the whims of the wealthy.
Long before Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio rose to power by denouncing the city's inequality, children like Dasani were being pushed further into the margins, and not just in New York. Cities across the nation have become flash points of polarization, as one population has bounced back from the recession while another continues to struggle. One in five American children is now living in poverty, giving the United States the highest child poverty rate of any developed nation except for Romania....Dasani's trials are not solely of her parents' making. They are also the result of decisions made a world away, in the marble confines 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. They would no longer get priority access to public housing and other programs, but would receive short-term help with rent. Poor people would be empowered, the mayor argued, and homelessness would decline.
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."...In 1985, the city repurposed the former hospital into a shelter for families. This was the dawn of the period known as "modern homelessness," driven by wage stagnation, Reagan-era cutbacks and the rising cost of homes.
One can only imagine the heights Dasani might reach at a school like Packer Collegiate Institute, just 12 blocks west of the shelter. Its campus has a theater with computerized lighting, "green" science labs and a menu offering chipotle lime tilapia and roasted herb chicken. Its middle school cultivates the interests of the "whole child," for whom doors will open to the "public arenas of the world."
Packer's students might learn something from Dasani, too. Parents from five private Brooklyn schools recently filed into Packer, where tuition is over $35,000, to hear a clinical psychologist give a talk on how to raise "self-reliant, appreciative children in a nervous and entitled world."
That world is unlikely to become Dasani's. She is not the kind of child to land a coveted scholarship to private school, which would require a parent with the wherewithal to seek out such opportunities and see them through. For the same reason, Dasani does not belong to New York's fast-growing population of charter school students.
The Times can't write about Dasani's poverty without turning it into an attack on President Reagan (who left office in 1988, more than a dozen years before Dasani was even born) and on private schools like Packer. It's too bad, because reporting of the sort that the Times does on Dasani, her family, and the shelter system could actually be useful in improving things for poor children. Forcing it into the Reagan-bashing "inequality" mold just discredits it and makes it more likely that people will tune it out like just one more speech about inequality from President Obama.
Related Topics: Income inequality, New York
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