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Living on the Edge

By Dalton Conley,
professor of sociology and public policy at New York University and author of "The Pecking Order: Which Siblings Succeed and Why"
Thursday, April 14, 2005; Page C04

WITHOUT A NET

Middle Class and Homeless (With Kids) in America: My Story

By Michelle Kennedy

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Viking. 212 pp. $23.95

Afew years ago, an advocacy group for the homeless in New York launched a subway ad campaign with the slogan "Homelessness: It could happen to anybody." But the truth was (and still is) that the vast majority of commuters who crowded into those trains faced merely the slimmest of chances of ever becoming homeless. The "it could happen to anybody" mantra was borne of a misdiagnosis of the problem: that homelessness in America was a housing problem. But homelessness cannot be reduced to houselessness. Housing construction has proceeded apace over the past two decades. Even low-income-housing construction has experienced a boom of sorts, thanks to the Low Income Housing Tax Credit and the work of community development nonprofit groups. Nonetheless, homelessness has continued to tick upward.

There is enough square footage in America for everyone to have a place to live. Rather, the problem is similar to the problem of starvation in many developing countries where there is, paradoxically, enough food; it is about the distribution of those resources, about income inequality. The rich have gotten richer over the past three decades, and the rest have stayed about the same, in absolute terms. Housing prices, in turn, are very sensitive to inequality. As a result, housing is the single biggest monthly expense for many households, and those at the lower rungs of the income ladder typically spend more than half of their resources on shelter. Thus, when hard times hit, forsaking a permanent abode is often the only viable survival strategy.

The Census Bureau's most recent estimates are that about 500,000 to 700,000 Americans are without a residence on a given day. Michelle Kennedy and her three kids were four of those thousands for a few difficult months in the late 1990s. What makes Kennedy's story interesting is that she was a self-proclaimed middle-class kid who -- through a series of bad choices -- ended up on hard times, raising her kids out of her car while she waited tables, hoping to save enough money for a security deposit on an apartment. She could have been the poster child for the subway ad campaign.

Very few of those 700,000 grew up in solidly middle-class households; fewer still attended an expensive, nationally reputed university such as American University, as Kennedy did before quitting. What makes her even more atypical is that neither drugs nor alcohol played a role in her story. But like many "exceptions," Kennedy's case is enlightening for what it tells us about the "rules."

So how did this bright kid end up living out of a station wagon in Stone Harbor, Maine, feeding her children Ramen noodles for days on end? Young, dumb love had something to do with it.

She married a hometown sweetheart, got pregnant real fast (repeated often) and dropped out of school and the workforce to raise her kids as a stay-at-home mom, running up lots of credit card debt in the process. Her husband hated his job and wanted to opt out of the rat race to live off the land back in rural Maine. After giving the mountain-man lifestyle a shot, Kennedy realized that she and her husband were not meant to be. She also realized that -- with him being so emotionally and financially undependable -- she didn't have much to lose by trying to start afresh on her own, with kids in tow.

She settled on Stone Harbor, which was experiencing a mini economic boom with the arrival of a major credit card company. Kennedy landed a job waiting tables in a restaurant-bar that had just opened to cater to the new yuppie crowd. She put her kids to bed in her car out back, with the kitchen staff keeping an eye on them. Later, she found a guardian angel in the form of a gynecologist's wife who wanted to set up an informal day-care service in her home to provide playmates for her child while earning some extra money. Kennedy's three kids immediately became her clients. But this added cost slowed down the deposits to her glove-compartment piggy bank, making the prospect of saving up first and last months' rent more distant. The fact that she had to choose between thrift and child care is a great illustration of the price that many low-income families pay for a lack of universal day care in the United States -- in contrast to most developed nations, where it is a given.

The paradoxes of what our weak welfare state expects of the poor dot the book: Kennedy applies for food stamps and finds out that by declaring her savings honestly, she does not qualify. The welfare office loses her application for housing assistance. And she is told that since she is still legally married, she must first apply for divorce or abandonment to get child support. (So much for President Bush's marriage-promotion policy.) Misdirected paternalism is not restricted to the bureaucrats: She is repeatedly turned down for apartments she can afford when potential landlords decide that the place is too small for her to raise three kids.

Her homelessness, then, is partly a result of her choices -- having so many kids before she had completed her studies, not relying on her parents more and not demanding better support from her ex -- and partly a result of these larger forces in society. Reading this book's engaging prose, one cannot help but alternate between anger and total empathy for the narrator-author. (Maybe it can happen to anybody after all.) The ultimate irony -- which the author doesn't make explicit -- is that her economic salvation comes from obtaining a job from the credit card company. Her daily task involves luring back into the fold former customers who have taken the brave step of canceling their credit card thanks to financial difficulties -- people who probably find themselves in situations similar to hers when this all started.

To her credit (no pun intended), she eventually quits, once she finds economic stability of another sort. But the irony is poignant; to escape desperation, she must become part of the problem -- that is, convincing struggling people to get back on the drug of high-interest consumer debt. This conundrum is embedded within a larger one: To escape the consumer capitalist system altogether, her ex-husband seemingly had to escape family life and responsibilities as well. The lesson of Kennedy's husband (and many other deadbeat dads) is that in escaping the grind and compromises of the American economy, you often must break the household social contract. So ultimately, "Without a Net" is less about homelessness, which strikes Kennedy for a relatively short period in the chronological arc of the book, than about the contradictions we all have to struggle with to get along in America.


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