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Monday 14 July 2003

Public Assistance

Last week, NPR’s All Things Considered ran a story about Catherine “Coco” Means, a woman who has recently moved from a housing project in Chicago into section-8 subsidized housing. The narration is entirely by Coco herself.

Aquanique is 6 years old. My baby girl, she is one years old. And her name is Unique. I got another one on the way. That one due in January.

The story is largely about the challenges Coco faces in moving from the world of public housing into the world that most of us live in. I have never heard a more damning indictment of public assistance.

Coco, despite being a legal adult, is a child, almost totally unable to take care of herself or her children. She doesn’t seem like a bad parent — or a bad or particularly stupid person in general — but she’s totally dependent on others, primarily the state.

I worked at Burger King for two weeks. That’s the only job I ever had, that’s the only thing I ever did. My mother never worked. My grandma, she never mentioned my grandma ever had a job.

About a month after moving into her new apartment, she’s on the verge of being thrown out as a result of complaints from other tenants. The landlord, a black woman, tells her that she’s making too much noise, the walls in the apartment have been damaged, too many people are coming and going from her apartment all day long, she’s sitting on the front porch in violation of the terms of the lease, etc.

Coco seems to understand, on some level, that these restrictions are part of what separates the middle class from the underclass. She says, “I guess we just gotta get over our little ghetto mentality.” But her friends from the project have other opinions, saying, “It’s like she discriminatin’ on her for where she came from,” and “If she that strict, like you said, she comin’ to you every week with somethin’ different, it’s the walls, it’s the people on the porch, best thing to do is find somewhere else.”

That’s right: if your landlord complains that you’re knocking holes in the walls, he or she is too strict.

Coco isn’t going to GED classes, she says, because it’s cold in her apartment, and she wants to make sure her kids are comfortable before she leaves them with a a babysitter. The apartment is cold because she has never got her gas turned on — after two months. She knows, on some level, that she doesn’t want to go on living like this for the rest of her life, but she hasn’t the faintest clue what that means.

I wanna be like the rich people. I wanna be able to call my mama like, “Mama, what you doin’ this weekend? Let me take you to the Bahamas this weekend.”

She’s never lived except as a kind of ward of the state, so she has no conception of what actions might lead to that outcome. None whatsoever.

Stateway Gardens, where Coco formerly lived, has been demolished to make room for a ‘mixed-income’ public housing scheme, where people who can live wherever they can afford pay money to live next door to people like Coco (the former residents of Stateway Gardens will, it seems, get first crack at the new housing).

It’s not, as I said, that Coco is a bad person. It’s that she’s an infant.

Coco is black, so her grandmother was — I am assuming here — not allowed to use certain drinking fountains or public restrooms, and not allowed to work or live certain places. It was assumed, by the mainstream culture, that the color of Coco’s grandmother’s skin meant that she was an idiot, that she was inferior to white people, and that she couldn’t be fully trusted to make her own decisions and run her own life.

Now that Coco has a fighting chance to be judged by the content of her character, though, it’s been seen to that the content of her character is a strong sense of dependence and helplessness. Coco’s grandmother knew what her problem was: a racist society that didn’t leave her with much opportunity. Coco, though, has been enslaved as surely as any of her ancestors were, with the added insult that she’s been led to believe that she’s being helped.

The NPR story is over twenty minutes long, but it’s well worth listening to — as are the additional recordings from the producers of the segment.

Posted by tino at 13:29 14.07.03
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Funny how the NPR producers and most of its listening audience won’t see it your way, Tino. They’ll see this as the result of a racist society run by mean-spirited Republicans who want to send Coco back to de fields pickin’ cotton.

Unfortunately, I don’t know what to say or do about it without seeming condescending.

Posted by: Twonk at July 14, 2003 02:28 PM

I heard this story (well most of it) when it was broadcast last week. And the thing that jumped out at me as being offensive was that she wasn’t allowed or actively discouraged from using the front porch. I mean I can see some of the logic to it but sheeesh sitting on the front porch and being social with your neighbors used to help make communities.

Posted by: Paul M Johnson at July 14, 2003 03:19 PM

When I was younger, I believed that the design of the welfare system deliberately enslaved blacks. They were trapped in bad neighborhoods and were given just enough money to keep them out of the way of white folks. As I got older, I started to think I’d been paranoid and was spending too much time wearing a tin-foil hat.

I now think that this is a case of good intentions gone completely off the rails. With the drug war imprisoning so many young black people, how can they ever expect to get out of poverty? After you’ve been convicted of a drug crime, you are unable to get a college loan, work many jobs, many of which do not require an education, and to live in certain places. And, in some states, a felony record takes your right to vote away. (hello? Katherine Harris?)

It seems like we are perpetuating an intractable problem just so some moronic politicians can get re-elected. I don’t know what the solution is, but paying able-bodied people to do nothing and imprisoning their best hope for the future for things that in any SANE country wouldn’t even be crimes sure as hell isn’t it.

Posted by: Nicole at July 14, 2003 03:31 PM

Paul’s comment about the porch thing is a good one; I noticed that as well.

But I still think it goes toward showing that the biggest problem here is a difference in cultural values. I get the impression that the building Coco moved into is a largish one with 20 or so apartments. Sitting on the stoop of something like that is quite different from sitting on the stoop of a converted townhouse with 5 apartments in it.

I don’t know what the building is like, so I can’t really tell whether this is a stupid restriction or not; but on most apartment buildings the stairs and porch are there to provvide access to the doors. They were never intended as a space for people to actually occupy, and more than a couple people on the stairs would get in the way of people trying to get in and out of the building.

If you look at most apartment leases, there are all kinds of restrictions in them, and generally you’re prohibited from sitting on the front steps. Middle-class people wouldn’t blink at this; they wouldn’t go sit on the front steps even if it were permitted.

Coco says, in the story, that she doesn’t want to live this kind of aimless life. Well, non-aimless, non-destitute people do not generally sit on apartment-house porches in bad neighborhoods. If she learns that from this experience, she’ll be one step closer to escaping.

Posted by: Tino at July 14, 2003 04:44 PM

Nicole writes: “When I was younger, I believed that the design of the welfare system deliberately enslaved blacks. They were trapped in bad neighborhoods and were given just enough money to keep them out of the way of white folks.”

I don’t think this has anything whatever to do with skin color. Martin Luther King died before I was born, but I cannot imagine that in his time, you were judged — or at least categorized — more by the color of your skin (white or ‘black’) than you are now.

What’s wrong with Coco isn’t that her skin is too dark, or that she grew up in the ‘black’ culture, or anything else like that. What’s wrong with her is that she grew up in a poor culture where ambition was actively discouraged.

There are at least as many white people who are so handicapped in America, but they’re less visible. A lot of incredibly poor and ignorant black people tend to live in cities, while their white counterparts tend to live in extremely rural areas: we call them hillbillies.

The American mainstream, though, is at least allowed to believe that there’s something wrong with the way hillbillies live. The black urban hillbillies are further harmed by the way society pretends that the problems have to do with healthy breakfasts, money spent on schools, job ‘programs’, etc., rather than a total failure of that part of the culture.

Posted by: Tino at July 15, 2003 01:46 PM