The best poverty writing in America

Here is something you simply must read.

Check out the brilliant cover piece in this week’s New York Times Magazine: “When the Man of the House is in the Big House.” It’s by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, and is adapted from her new book Random Family — about the lives of inner-city residents of the Bronx.

I heard LeBlanc talk about the book back in November at the Nieman Narrative Journalism conference, and her research sounded awe-inspiring; she spent nearly a decade tracking the lives of a few people in a Bronx neighborhood. It shows: In this week’s Times article, she offers one of the most precise and nuanced portraits of what it’s like living with the justice system as part of your life.

Indeed, her longitudinal approach — ten long years — makes all the difference. I know tons of reporters who get sent out to write a piece about “what life is like” in a project. But they’re given a day or two at best for research, and really, you can’t learn anything in that time. The inner machinery of poverty won’t reveal itself with such a cursory glance. In fact, it’s these snapshot glances that produce the classically smug, one-dimensional views that dominate Republican ideas about the urban poor: They’re lazy; they have no self-control; they’re needlessly violent. In contrast, when you read LeBlanc’s work, you get a sense of how it all connects together. In particular, she does a superb job of illustrating just how mind-crushingly boring life in a project is — and how it drives kids to do something, anything, just to feel vaguely alive. LeBlanc does something quite difficult: She makes boredom interesting to read about — makes it something people can understand.

Moreover, LeBlanc avoids a classic trap in writing about poverty: The idea of “blaming the parents.” There was a terrific piece in the early 90s in the New Yorker about this problem. (Sorry, I can’t remember who or when, precisely, just the details of the piece.) Back then, there was a boomlet in stories and movies about the urban poor — unusually sensitive and sympathetic ones. But as the New Yorker writer noted, each of the books and movies focused exclusively on children. Children, the writer argued, are considered “innocent” in American ideas about poverty; they’re born into it, so they can’t be blamed, and the books and movies and stories were thus extremely sympathetic to them. But when it came to the parents, the sympathy vanished. Parents were adults, and by the covert Republican logic of these otherwise pretty cool books, adults are always to blame for their poverty: They’ve made poor choices, screwed things up, dropped out of school, whatever. And this is true: Historically, the only way anyone can write something sympathetic about poverty is to write about the kids, the “blameless.” Those adults? Screw them; they can pull themselves up by their own damn boostraps. It’s the same tacit assumption that’s behind the drive to end “child poverty”. Because what the hell does “child” poverty mean, precisely? There is no child poverty; there’s just, well, “poverty”, and that afflicts the parents as much as the kids.

Against this backdrop, LeBlanc’s writing is almost breathtakingly incisive in understanding how low-income, crime-addled families really work — and the actual reasons the parents make their life choices. I really can’t overstate how amazing her writing is.

In fact, I won’t even quote from the piece here, because you really have to read it as a whole. But read it! Then go buy the book.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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