When I was a kid, I didn’t read “the funny pages” of the newspaper; in fact, the only newspaper that came into my parents’ home did not stoop to such trivia. We read, exclusively, The New York Times.
I remember the first time—it must have been around sixth grade—that I happened upon “The Neediest Cases” articles in The Times.
The stories hit me like a ton of bricks.
Comfortably ensconced in my parents’ Park Avenue apartment, I had no idea—no idea—that just a few blocks away, on the other side of the 96th Street divide between the wealthy Upper East Side and dirt-poor Spanish Harlem, ordinary people just like me and my family were living in abject poverty.
With a kind of morbid fascination, I read about the kids whose parents were locked away in prison; the kids whose parents were drug users; the kids whose parents were homeless, sleeping in the dark, rat-infested recesses of the infamous New York City train tunnels.
Every article ended with the same words: Give to The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund.
This went on year after year. Every year there were more “neediest cases,” each one more dire and depressing than the last.
Eventually I began to actively avoid reading those pages in December. The contrast between the clean, glowing, opulent New York I knew and the dark, dank margins of poverty I was reading about was just too much for me to take.
And it was clear to me, at least on a subliminal level, that giving to the Neediest Cases Fund did not accomplish much—not if every year the need continued, unabated and even growing worse.
This week I opened my Ipad while still in bed and found myself drawn, despite myself, into a Neediest Cases article on 21st century media steroids—complete with an elegant magazine presentation and fabulous photographs of the squalor of homelessness.
It was the story of a 12-year-old girl named Dasani (after the bottled water), the oldest child of two methadone-dependent former addicts. Unemployed and homeless, the parents live in a single room in a mouse-infested city shelter with their seven children, from Dasani on down to an infant.
As with the 19th century New York tenement photographs of Jacob Riis, the pictures themselves tell a powerful story. Dasani is still full of optimistic determination to succeed at school; she hasn’t yet been beaten down, like her sad-faced mother.
I can just imagine Park Avenue New Yorkers—at least The New York Times readers among them—reaching in droves for their checkbooks to send some relief to Dasani and her family.
It happens every time there is a story about a disaster or a particularly shocking needy case. Wealthy people open up their wallets and give what they can.
But the need goes on, and on.
Photo by Ruth Fremson of The New York Times
What will happen to Dasani’s little sister, the one who is legally blind? What will become of her rambunctious little brothers? What will prevent them from following the same path that ensnared their parents, drug addiction born of desperation? What will keep them out of prison and make them into the productive citizens our society claims to admire?
When I was a girl, I naively believed that the “neediest cases” were an aberration. I thought that most people lived the way I did, in comfortable security.
In fact, it’s the other way around in our America. More and more Americans are falling into poverty day by day. Our minimum wage cannot sustain a family, not even with both parents working. We don’t have decent health care or child care for lower income working people. Food pantries are scarcely able to keep up with the need, as food prices continue to rise.
There are 22,000 homeless children in New York City alone, according to The Times.
Nationally, according to the U.S. Department of Education, there are 1,168,354 homeless students, a figure that many believe to be an underestimate.
It’s outrageous that the richest, most powerful nation on Earth is willing to allow more than a million of its children to go homeless year after year.
We spend billions on nuclear weapons annually, which Lord knows we do not need and cannot use. This taxpayer money could provide a stellar education for all American children—not just the ones who are fortunate enough to live in a wealthy school district.
Dasani and her siblings have as much right to the American dream as any other American child.
Donating to the charities that hand out teddy bears at Christmastime is just not enough.
The great activist Eve Ensler wrote in her latest memoir that she “despises charity.”
Why? Because it doesn’t go far enough.
It’s a sop to the consciences of those who give, without addressing the root causes of the need in a way that might actually alleviate it in the longterm.
Structural changes are needed at every level of our society. For starters, let’s do away with the policy that ties school district funding to property tax revenues.
American public schools should provide a level playing field for all children, regardless of where they live.
Next, don’t just warehouse poor families like Dasani’s in miserable rundown housing. Give them jobs, give them respect, give them an incentive to work their way out of poverty.
At the very least, they could be organized to clean up their city-run housing, plant gardens and provide services to each other as a way to supplement their welfare checks.
Nothing breeds hopelessness faster than powerlessness, and charity perpetuates the illusion of powerlessness in its recipients.
Dasani’s resilience and determination, as brought to light in the outstanding reporting of Andrea Elliot and her photographer Ruth Fremson, needs no charity. All Dasani needs is a fair chance.
Photo by Ruth Fremson of The New York Times