A closely observed chronicle of a year in the life of a homeless single mother as she negotiates the system of public assistance.
Brooklyn-based journalist Sandler shadows Camila, a 22-year-old Dominican mother of a newborn living in New York City without a supportive family or a stable place to call home. As the author writes, she “wanted to witness and understand how deepening inequality is lived in America, and particularly in New York, a city that gets richer as the poor get poorer.” Throughout the narrative is an overarching indictment of the catastrophe of financial inequality in America, where “most people in poverty are women, specifically women of color. Furthermore, they are single mothers.” Sandler displays her journalistic talent by unerringly presenting this dire situation: the vanishing safety net, the stubbornness of entrenched racism, and the snowballing burdens of poor women. As galling as the statistics are—e.g., 2.5 million homeless children in America—it is following in Camila’s footsteps that drives the story home. She possesses an agile mind and a flabbergasting degree of patience, but her circumstances are dictated by the sum of her paperwork. Camila is a force, but force only goes so far as she experiences progressive brutality. Showing how public assistance programs have continually been cut back—in 1970, the average check was $1,125 a month; in 2015, it was “barely more than two hundred bucks”—the author also pays close attention to Camila’s particular circumstances amid a bizarre bureaucracy. These included the loss of child care payments, Medicaid, eligibility for emergency shelter, child support payments, and numerous temporary homes. “Respect had always been the most important thing to her,” writes Sandler, “but taking a stand for it had become a luxury she couldn’t afford.” Remarkably, Camila manages to juggle caring for her young son, attending school (a two-hour commute) and work-study, and desperately trying to establish ties with her exploded biological family.
An impressive blend of dispassionate reporting, pungent condemnation of public welfare, and gritty humanity.