16 December 2013

Two Children in Poverty, a Century Apart

At the orphanage. My grandmother is in the center row,
fourth from the left. Year and photographer unknown.
I have been very sick for a week, and no end in sight. So today, while trying to force myself to stay in bed, I finally read the New York Times’ profile of Dasani, a homeless girl living in a shelter in Brooklyn. Once I started, I had to read the entire gripping, heart-wrenching account. 

“[Dasani] 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.” 

It made me think of another person I know who grew up in New York in poverty: my grandmother. 

My Armenian grandmother was born in Istanbul when it was still known as Constantinople. She arrived in New York at eight years old (although officially only five years old, for a lower fare in steerage), a refugee from Turkey who had escaped the Armenian Genocide. Her mother couldn’t support her, so she sent my grandmother to live in an orphanage for several years, until her mother married again and could afford to bring her home. My grandmother grew up in the city through the Great Depression. She was able to attend a public arts high school, which led to her first job copying French perfume bottles for a department store. She gave all the money she earned to her mother. 

In the course of her life in the U.S., she skyrocketed out of poverty into prosperity, a world away from where she started. She had a house in California with her own studio. Her husband owned his own business and passed it onto their sons. She died, essentially of old age, at ninety-seven and a half. 

Like many women of her generation, my grandmother safeguarded herself from deprivation, even in the midst of plenty. She bought oatmeal, canned tomato sauce, and soup in bulk. She cooked huge amounts of Armenian food—kufta, berag, lamajoon, kata, churag—and packed the leftovers into a second freezer. She hid money throughout the house; sometimes she forgot it, and we only found it after she died. 

Certain habits of caution and protection have lasted three generations, carved into my dad and me even though we have never known such want. 

When I read this story, about all the structural barriers that keep Dasani’s family trapped in a shelter for more than three years, I cried. My grandmother horrified me with stories of conditions at the orphanage, but the shelter trumps the hardships she endured. Adding insult to injury are the examples of Dasani and her family disregarded and unheard by those who are ostensibly charged with protecting children and the poor: housing inspectors, the Administration for Children’s Services, the shelter director. And above them all, the mysterious figure of Mayor Bloomberg looms, enacting laws from an abstract distance that affect their lives in concrete terms. His philosophy of ending poverty, based on ideology, instead closes down the family’s potential exits from the shelter to stable housing. 

In stark contrast, Dasani’s teachers and principal stand out as they try their best to keep her in school, to teach her the kind of impulse control she will need to succeed, and to provide structure and stability that she can find nowhere else in her life. 

America’s promise is deeply, deeply broken. That homeless children must survive in these places, just blocks away from $1.9 million condos, is profoundly immoral. We have absolutely no claim to the title “the greatest country in the world” as long as we are willing to allow children to grow up in circumstances like these. We must take steps to end such escalating inequality now

Charity is not enough. We need a transformation of how we conceptualize poverty. We need to take a hard look at the way inequality is built into the very bricks of our society. To provide Dasani with the same opportunities my grandmother had, we need to reconsider access to quality education, living wages, child care services, prenatal care, drug addiction and its criminalization, mental and physical health care, welfare, urban planning, and our institutional prejudices against women, against people of color, against the poor themselves. Most of all, we need to listen to the voices of people in poverty and take them seriously when they vocalize their needs. And their dreams. 

No easy task, certainly. But we have a choice. When faced with the problem of every child like Dasani, will we throw up our hands? Or will we roll up our sleeves and do the hard work?

1 comment:

  1. I am pasting the URL for this piece on my facebook page. The contrast in opportunity is vast.