Another Place at the Table is about Kathy Harrison’s experience of being a foster mother to over a hundred children in addition to raising a family of both biological and adopted children. She chronicles the struggles, tears, and absolute heartbreak that comes with being a foster parent, taking in abused and mentally ill children and watching them become victims of “the system” in 1990s Massachusetts. It’s a rough read– I found myself not wanting to believe some of the stories she was telling. However gut wrenching the story, I still feel that it takes a special person to commit themselves to fostering. To all those who critique her and her decisions, unless you’ve fostered children yourself, hold your tongue.
I can imagine what compelled Harrison and her husband, Bruce, to foster. Hearing the stories of what happens to children and almost worse, what lies ahead if they aren’t given the chance to enter a stable home brings me to tears. Children who suffer from Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, are significantly more likely to develop depression, suicidal thoughts, obesity, diabetes, alcoholism and drug abuse tendencies. An ACE can be something like a parental separation or divorce, having a family member incarcerated, or being sexually abused. The higher the number of ACEs, the worse the likely outcome. While poverty, as Harrison rightly points out is a big factor (leading to and perpetuating toxic stress) of the “why children end up in foster care” question, there’s more to the picture she doesn’t quite address, and I understand, that’s not the scope of her book.
What Harrison does know is that fostering takes up ones entire emotional threshold. The story of Shamika, a beautiful baby who had been horrifically burned (not by accident) is incredibly touching. Harrison and Bruce feel a kinship to her almost instantaneously and quickly become very attached and protective. When word gets out of Shamika’s recently released (from prison) father that his child (who he’s only met once) is in the hands of the Harrison’s and is willing to do whatever to get his daughter back, social services whisks Shamika away from the arms of the Harrisons in order to protect the baby. Harrison is left devastated, with little more than hope to guide her though recovering. I found this story to be even more so important to the book as Harrison opens up how she struggles to feel the same, unrelenting parental love for each of her children. There’s Karen, who the Harrisons adopt as a young child, who they have unfailing love for. But during the time of Karen’s adoption, other foster children in the home struggle with understanding why the Harrison’s didn’t adopt them. Were they not loved? Was Karen loved more? Of course the Harrison’s couldn’t adopt every children that came through their doors but it felt awful to read Harrison’s words, acknowledging that while they cared for every child, there were just some they felt connected to in a way that they did not with others.
Maid tells the story of how Stephanie Land, a single mother living in Washington, could not make ends meet despite working as a maid and receiving supplemental social services. On top of incredible financial stress, her daughter’s father is abusive and demanding, her own parents selfish and absent, leaving her without a vital support system to help her stay afloat. While I certainly do not want to discredit Stephanie Land’s experiences, as this is her book and I haven’t written one let alone experienced poverty, there were numerous points throughout the book I felt Land had gotten herself stuck where she was due to poor decision making. She stayed with an abusive man, had a baby with him despite the fact he did not want one, received several small sums of money and spent them on frivolous items, just to name a few. All of these anecdotes were characterized in such a way that did not put the blame on herself, but rather some vague institutional force she felt was suppressing her potential.
Land’s life was extremely hard. She writes about her daughter learning to walk in a homeless shelter. The fact her daughter only had one small toy figurine to play with. She often drank coffee to quell her hunger. There is no doubt how desperate her situation was to not only care for herself, but to care for her daughter. She made sacrifice after sacrifice, only buying vegetables on clearance, always making sure Mia had healthy foods to eat, and bringing Mia to the doctor’s to receive care though she could not always afford the treatments. She talks about just how little support her employer gave, not reimbursing her for gas money or time when Land drove to a client’s house, only to be met by a locked door because the client had forgotten.
Yet I didn’t always feel sympathy or pity for her. She dedicates numerous chapters to the back-breaking work she does, and buried in the details of scrubbing toilets, picking up dirty tissues presumably with men’s semen in them, and cleaning up constantly after clients, she writes about how she goes through medicine cabinets, peaks into urns sitting on the mantle, and makes all kinds of judgmental remarks on her clients’ appearances, dispositions and family politics. This aspect of her personality really put me off, for if she actually did these things, she most certainly shouldn’t have written about these voyeuristic endeavors in her book and should have kept them to herself. Secondly, she often referenced different men she had met through dating websites, bringing them around her daughter, and on a number of occasions, receiving favors from them. One man, Travis, turned out to be a downright misogynistic douche who she and Mia lived with a year who verbally degraded Land, refused to compensate her for work she’s done around his parent’s farm and ordered her to hand over the money she made doing odd-jobs. Despite all these problems, Land is reluctant to leave him because she feels Travis is a good father figure to Mia. While I’m no psychologist, Land seems to be quite easily manipulated and to be dealing with insecurities that inhibit her sense of responsibility.
Though the book is no masterpiece, it is admirable how far Land has come from working as a cleaner to published a book that has been widely circulated and reviewed. I would most certain not compare it to Evicted by Matthew Desmond, in it’s own right it does communicate exactly what Land wants it to. That people don’t expect to find themselves in that type of desperate situation ever, but when they do, they realize just how difficult it is to get out.
One of the best ethnographies (in book form) I’ve ever read, Evicted is about a number of Milwaukee families, both African American and Caucasian, who struggle to secure and stay in housing despite serious trials. It’s 2008; some are single mothers, some are drug addicts, some are both. Some are paralyzed and live on disability, others are unemployed, some by choice, some by circumstance. Each of the stories Desmond paints are infuriating in some way or another. There’s Arlene, a single mother with her two boys who has moved a number of times in just a few months. She’s just been evicted by the landlord from her apartment because her teenage son Jori had been throwing snowballs at passing cars and the man who’s car they hit got mad and broke down their apartment door. The landlord couldn’t deal with it, kicking the family to the curb. There’s Scott, who had worked hard to become nurse but eventually loosing his nursing license after being caught stealing patients’ opioids which he both sold and used himself. Unemployed and with a new drug addiction, he wanders between shelters, rehab centers and a trailer park. Desmond includes profiles of people who are black, white, young mothers, sixty year olds and people who came from middle class backgrounds. Evicted tells the painful story of what it’s like to find, secure, and loose housing and how the cycle repeats itself squandering any semblance of hope.
On one hand, there are the systemic issues. Racism, classism, poor infrastructure and unequal investment in low-income neighborhoods, the loss of thousands of manufacturing jobs, you name it and the issue is discussed in the book. These, and the profound legacies are undeniable. But I also feel that there is behavior that puts people in bad situations where they loose their job and become homeless. Conservatives have long blamed the “welfare queen” for the position she put herself in. Why does she have five children, each fathered by a different man who is absent? To be honest, I wonder that too. Arlene, for example has multiple children, with at least three men, one of whom is incarcerated because of aggravated assault. She can’t even afford to take care of herself, let alone one child… or five. I think of what most people’s thought process might be. If you can’t afford to have a child, then don’t. Either use protection, take birth control or perhaps if the situation is dire, one could have an abortion or put the child up for adoption. There’s absolutely the possibility that Arlene never had thorough sexual education in school, that she never finished high school, or had access to birth control options. But in the back of my mind I think: don’t condoms cost a few bucks and aren’t they easily available at corner stores? Most people make life decisions in accordance with their finances, bolstered by moral codes and familial or societal expectations. If I can’t afford a pair of new shoes or a fifty dollar meal, then I won’t fork over the money. If I can’t afford to have a baby, I will make sure I use protection and take other precautionary measures. But Arlene makes poor decisions on a number of occasions, buying a “fancy” meal one night of different meat cuts from the corner store and her kids new clothes and shoes when she was behind on the previous month’s rent. There are multiple occasions where people make objectively unwise financial decisions. I want to be compassionate towards people who are in need, especially when there are innocent children involved but there’s something wrong when you’re in the hole a couple hundred for rent and you put money towards a turkey dinner instead.
There’s also Vanetta, a single mother who can’t seem to find an apartment for her and her two young kids. Well, turns out she not only has prior eviction records which already makes it nearly impossible to find a landlord willing to overlook that fact, but she also has a criminal eviction, from the time when, along with her cousins and friends, she went to rob some random person on the street with a firearm to try and steal the woman’s purse. With a criminal conviction, it’s nearly impossible to rent, let alone find a job. Many homeless shelters turn her away because of her run-in with the law. I truly feel that it is Vanetta’s fault in many ways. You break the law, you deal with the consequences. It’s the same for me. I struggle to reconcile the fact that she has deepened the hole which she is in due to her own actions, but that her kids are involved and are exposed to violence, drugs, and other adverse childhood experiences because they do not have a stable home. That’s why this book is infuriating. People make their lives worse when they make bad decisions.
Moving beyond individual behaviors, the big alarm Desmond is trying to sound is the lived experience of being at the cusp of homelessness and squalid living conditions. The rental market in most American cities is already tight, with management companies buying up property, inflating property values, gentrification, continued white flight, the arrival of people from other areas and more. The minimum wage cannot support a stable life, let alone children, rent, food, a phone bill or utilities. Even if the poorest of the poor are working at a fast food joint with all the overtime hours they can possibly manage to work, they still, cannot support themselves. This is the “ideal” bind, that everyone’s working their hardest. But poverty begets poverty. Spirits are crushed, dreams eliminated. Hope lost. Desmond’s portraits show how tragic people’s lives become when they see no way out, when even serious drive or work ethic doesn’t help. If they are lucky to scrape enough cash together for a month’s rent, manipulative and extractive landlords will rent out places with serious code violations such as apartments where lead paint has been used, broken sewer lines, no running water, to name a few. Don’t even get started on how different the white and black experiences of poverty are and how big of a role racism plays in white people’s systems of rationalization. This book made me mad. Mad that so many children caught in the web will probably turn out like their parents, mad that urban governance has had very little success in designing systems and services to support vulnerable people and mad that people make poor decisions that contribute to their situation. The stories are conflicting and wrought with emotion, making me think long and hard about how most of these peoples are just political statistics, devoid of conscious and ambition.
Hillbilly Elegy seemed to have garnered a lot of attention after it’s 2016 release as many people sought to find some explanation of how Trump had so much political support stemming from the Appalachian region. However, I think it is important to recognize that this isn’t some great sociological investigation or commentary; Vance is writing a memoir of his childhood and young adult years. He’s writing about his life and the people who both contributed and inhibited his growth, the opportunities and setbacks he encountered and what he believes to the reasons he has been able to make a life for himself.
Vance was essentially raised by his Mamaw (he writes it’s pronounced ma’am-maw) and Papaw in Middletown, Ohio in the 1980s, a place where troves of Kentucky Appalachian transplants relocated in the wake of massive recruitment by manufacturing companies seeking blue-collar workers. Mamaw and Papaw Vance, in Vance’s words were true Jackson County, Kentucky “hillbillies”– they abide by a set of societal norms of which defending the family’s honor is the singular most important rule. Vance’s memoir is filled with stories, some more legend than truth, of his Mamaw’s no bullshit attitude: when she caught some theives stealing her family’s cow, she took a shotgun and managed to hit one guy in the leg. She would’ve shot the downed thief again to kill him if not for her brother holding her back. Mamaw cussed, called people out on their mistakes and encouraged J.D. to beat up a school bully who would repeatedly beat up a scrawny classmate. J.D. clearly worshipped his grandmother. Vance’s mother, Mamaw’s second child, was largely absent in his life, moving from boyfriend to boyfriend, eventually falling into drug addiction. Vance’s father broke up with his mother a few months after he was born and started a new family of his own, living a conservative religious lifestyle after joining the Pentecostal Church. Vance’s grandparents and family from Kentucky believed in God but didn’t attend church (Vance comments that people from Appalachia think they go to church more than they do; apparently, the actual rate of church going is very close to the rate of church attendance in liberal San Fransisco). Vance’s older sister Lindsay was one of the only constants in his life, protecting him from their abusive mother and taking care of him when no one else did. He writes about ACEs or Adverse Childhood Experiences, a metric used by psychologists and social services to understand childhood trauma and the likely problems adults who experienced ACEs as children, will have. For example, if a child experiences parental separation or divorce, has a family member who abuses drugs or alcohol, has depression or is suicidal, all these different ACEs affect the child in profound ways, even altering brain chemistry for life. Adults who experienced ACEs, especially multiple ones, have higher rates of obesity, heart disease, psychological problems, substance abuse and even have problems maintaining normal relationships and holding down a job.
While Vance experienced multiple ACEs, he writes that he was able to “make it” because of people in his life: his Mamaw, who instilled in him importance of doing well in school and took him under her wing after Vance’s mother proved time and time again she was unable to provide for her son, his sister Lindsay who protected him during his childhood, his mentor (Amy Chua) in graduate school, various friends and his future wife, Usha. He also had the opportunity to enlist in the Marine Corps after high school and later enroll in college at Ohio State University with minimal debt thanks to need-based financial aid, Pell Grants and the GI Bill. Yale, where he attended Law School, also gave him essentially a free-ride; the irony being that it was cheaper to attend a private, out of state school than a public, in-state university. It is clear that Vance is grateful for the people in his life and the opportunities he had, but he feels that in addition to things happening to align for him, he also worked incredibly hard and sacrificed his fair share. He worked two jobs to support himself through college, sleeping less than four hours a night in order to graduate with minimal debt and a double major in just under two years. He worked for a remodeling company after college, lifting tiles in order to save up money for law school. His work ethic was what contributed to his success: while his peers from Middletown and Jackson County got caught up in adolescent parenthood, drugs and unemployment, Vance did the opposite, focusing in energies to excel in school and provide for himself. A obvious conservative, Vance believes that what set him apart from his peers and others in his community was not only having a few saving graces along the way like supportive relatives, but the fact he also worked to get where he wanted to go, instead of wallowing in excuses and self-pity.
This is where things get dicey. Many readers thought this attitude of “I worked hard, so should they” was pompous and completely neglected the systemic pressures Appalachians and other poor working whites face, including disappearing manufacturing jobs due to processes like globalization, trade wars and unchecked capitalism, the incredibly extractive coal and mining industries (which have also wreaked substantial environmental havoc), the overprescription of of opioids, contributing to the ensuing epidemic, the increasing political isolation, brain-drain, and a whole host of other issues Vance largely fails to address. Vance writes off these experiences as it’s just what happens when people make poor life decisions. Until young women stop having children with multiple men, people decide to work hard at their job, stop taking drugs, start working hard in school, things will continue to deteriorate, all at the expense of the next generation of children. Vance writes of many neighbors who were those stereotypical “welfare queens”: each of her children have a different father, she’s addicted to drugs, has a new boyfriend every month, she uses her food stamps to get food, then sells it for cash to fund her drug habits. He writes of his co-worker with a pregnant girlfriend coming in perpetually late to work, taking extensive bathroom breaks, who slacks. After multiple warnings, his boss fires the guy who later complains that it isn’t his fault he got fired and that it was unfair as he has a child on the way. Vance writes that there are so many people who completely neglect the opportunities right in front of them. You can’t help people until they help themselves. It’s not a policy problem, Vance argues, but a mindset problem. Poor working whites have created a construct in which they are the victims.
I can see why this rubs people the wrong way, but I think it’s important to understand this is a memoir of Vance’s life. Take his work for what it is, rather than critique his take on social policy. Vance is not a sociologist trying to understand why people are they why they are. I think he is very brave in writing about his family history and putting it out there for strangers to read. There are too few narratives of what upward mobility and the accompanying challenges are like for everyday Americans and his story should be read with empathy and compassion though admittedly he veers into dangerous territory when he writes about Appalachians as a whole, rather than his own experience. Vance was in his early 30s when the book was released; it would be interesting to see if he writes another part to his memoir some decades later and if his attitudes and beliefs change at all in the future.