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HANDS TO WORK

THE STORIES OF THREE FAMILIES RACING THE WELFARE CLOCK

An eloquent, affecting look at the faces behind the statistics.

A journalist follows the lives of three very different Bronx families as they attempt to find sustainable employment before the expiration of their welfare benefits.

In 1996, President Clinton signed a bill that changed the existing structure of welfare: families would receive benefits for a maximum of five years, the limit for a lifetime. Single adults were limited to two years. As more and more families left the welfare rolls, Hancock (Journalism/Columbia Univ.; US News & World Report) became interested in uncovering the stories behind this seemingly good news. For more than three years she recorded the day-to-day struggles of Alina (a Moldavian refugee, hoping to become a doctor), Brenda (an African-American single mother of two, eager to find work), and Christine (a Puerto Rican single mother of four with a heroin addiction and a host of other problems). In the best documentary tradition, the author accompanies the women to “welfare centers, to courtroom hearings, to medical exams, to jail, to classrooms, to their children’s schools,” their graduations, weddings, and birthdays. Hancock exposes the culture of welfare—for both caseworker and client—as an environment that demands personal responsibility, while at the same time infantilizing its clients. Over the course of the narratives, these women inspire a certain fondness from the reader; arriving in the US with no money, and not a word of English, Alina’s success is the result of her incredible drive, strong family ties, and a well-funded network of refugee aid societies. Brenda, having grown up in a series of foster homes and without a family to fall back on, must depend entirely on public aid. Working full-time at a minimum-wage job, her enthusiasm alone is not enough to support a family of three. By the end of the tale, Brenda has returned to welfare, with only a few months left on her lifetime limit. As a heroin addict, homeless and jobless, Christine is the most fragile of the three. As she reaches the end of her benefits, she has lost her four children, spent time in prison for a felony drug conviction, but continues to persevere.

An eloquent, affecting look at the faces behind the statistics.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 2002

ISBN: 0-688-17388-8

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2001

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A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES

For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

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WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR

A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular...

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A neurosurgeon with a passion for literature tragically finds his perfect subject after his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer.

Writing isn’t brain surgery, but it’s rare when someone adept at the latter is also so accomplished at the former. Searching for meaning and purpose in his life, Kalanithi pursued a doctorate in literature and had felt certain that he wouldn’t enter the field of medicine, in which his father and other members of his family excelled. “But I couldn’t let go of the question,” he writes, after realizing that his goals “didn’t quite fit in an English department.” “Where did biology, morality, literature and philosophy intersect?” So he decided to set aside his doctoral dissertation and belatedly prepare for medical school, which “would allow me a chance to find answers that are not in books, to find a different sort of sublime, to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.” The author’s empathy undoubtedly made him an exceptional doctor, and the precision of his prose—as well as the moral purpose underscoring it—suggests that he could have written a good book on any subject he chose. Part of what makes this book so essential is the fact that it was written under a death sentence following the diagnosis that upended his life, just as he was preparing to end his residency and attract offers at the top of his profession. Kalanithi learned he might have 10 years to live or perhaps five. Should he return to neurosurgery (he could and did), or should he write (he also did)? Should he and his wife have a baby? They did, eight months before he died, which was less than two years after the original diagnosis. “The fact of death is unsettling,” he understates. “Yet there is no other way to live.”

A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular clarity.

Pub Date: Jan. 19, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-8129-8840-6

Page Count: 248

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 29, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2015

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