December 12, 2013

NOT THE BOTTLED WATER: Robert McManus: How Do You Solve A Problem Like Dasani?

“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.”

Who could imagined such a result, despite vast government expenditures?