Life at the Margin


Rachel and Her Children, by Jonathan Kozol, New York: Crown, 256 pages, $17.95

Jonathan Kozol is what the newspaper trade used to call a "sob sister." He dwells lavishly, lovingly, unashamedly, on emotional detail. No tear goes ungushed, no sigh escapes the lips of the suffering, but that he is there to record it.

Consequently, he has written a very moving book. Kozol spent several weeks at the Martinique, one of New York's most infamous "welfare hotels." There the wreckage of American society—mostly mothers with their four and five illegitimate children—are stuffed into what may be their final resting place—decaying rooms barely big enough to hold a bed. While the City of New York pays $2,000 a month for these digs, the homeless are given allowances of $270 a month to find apartments in a city where apartments are rarely available for less than $400. Not surprisingly, their "temporary" stays in welfare hotels often last three to four years.

The stories are abjectly depressing. Rachel, from whom the book takes its name, tells of leaving her children alone for two days while prostituting herself to buy food. Another mother saw her two-year-old invalid child die in a welfare office while awaiting hotel placement. Most people live in daily fear of losing their children to welfare authorities. Everyone in this book has fallen about as far as she can imagine and is still not sure she has touched bottom.

For the most part, Kozol lets his subjects do the talking. Their narratives, while often rambling, are unusually poignant. The hotels themselves, as Kozol comments, are reminiscent of Dickens and Dante. Welfare officials routinely force husbands to leave before taking in wives and children. Rooms have no cooking facilities, but residents are tacitly encouraged to use fire-prone hotplates at their own risk. Elevators are always broken (by teenage vandals, as Kozol fails to note). When the plumbing failed at one point, women were forced to carry water up 14 flights in order to flush their toilets.

Food allowances amount to only 71 cents per meal, yet with no refrigerators food is constantly wasted. Guards sexually harass the residents, then refuse to convey messages, even when a close relative is dying. Nobody can sleep at night for fear of burglaries. Residents are mugged, drugs peddled, children molested and abused. Altogether, it is an ineradicable portrait of the misery of homeless America.

Unfortunately, when it comes to analyzing the problem, Kozol falls flat on his face. He has nothing to offer except the conventional wisdom that "greedy landlords" and "cutbacks in Federal spending" are to blame. Like all homeless advocates, he looks at the housing crises in New York, Boston, Washington, San Francisco, and Los Angeles—all cities with rent control—and projects their problems over the entire country.

In fact, the basic reason we have homelessness today is that housing has become one of the most highly regulated industries in the country. It is not regulated at the national and state levels so much as at the local level. Every municipality, large and small, has planning and zoning agencies whose sole mandate is to limit construction of just about every kind of housing—except perhaps $450,000 homes on two-to-five-acre lots.

All over the country, suburban communities are vigourously zoning out housing—especially lower-income housing like apartments. This market manipulation has pushed up prices so that first-time home-ownership is now out of reach for buyers at the median income. As a result, these people are forced to remain in rental housing—where they compete with even lower-income people. By the time this chain of events plays back into the central cities, somebody is left without a place to live.

Many cities have responded by imposing rent controls, which only makes things worse. Once rent controls are in place, the housing market essentially shuts down. Every major city with rent control now has a vacancy rate around 2 percent. The national vacancy rate is 7 percent and cities without rent control—Philadelphia, Baltimore, Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, Dallas, and so on—have vacancies ranging from 4 to 16 percent.

Most alarmingly, as Kozol himself notes, poor people in New York, Washington, and Boston who have been given federal Section 8 housing vouchers find they cannot even spend them because of the tight housing market. Yet in Chicago, where vacancies are 6 percent, apartment listings often read: "Section 8 vouchers welcome!" Thus, while New York has 33 "welfare hotels," Chicago has none.

Rachel and Her Children is worth reading as a painstakingly detailed chronicle of just how desperate life can become at the margin when government intervention ruins a marketplace. If you want to find the answer for dealing with the problems Kozol documents, however, you will have to look elsewhere.

Contributing Editor William Tucker is writing a book on the homeless.