Editor’s note: At Storyline, we’re harnessing the power of stories to help you understand complex policy topics. This is one in a series of introductory posts from our team members, about how stories have helped us see things more clearly in our own lives.
I have read many a good opening sentence in my day, but none such as this:
“One July morning last year in Oklahoma City, in a public-housing project named Sooner Haven, twenty-two-year-old Kim Henderson pulled a pair of low-rider jeans over a high-rising gold lamé thong and declared herself ready for church.”
Tell me you’re not going to keep reading that story.
Katherine Boo wrote it for the August 18, 2003 issue of The New Yorker. Boo, for those unfamiliar – and if you are, please rectify that immediately – is a master at doing that which we strive to do here: illuminate public policy through human drama. She does so in a way that respects the ability of her readers to understand the elemental fact of humanity: that it is full of contradiction. She dwells in the glorious intersection of individual agency and social structure. What we choose we do and how our choices are influenced and, in some cases, bounded by public and social policies past and present.
In Richmond, the city I now call home, the constricted futures of its youth living in public housing are at once a product of housing and transportation and education policies and of family life. Boo, ever the excavator, would tell you that family life is itself a partial creation of policy. No, check that. She wouldn’t tell you. She would show you. As she does in “The Marriage Cure,” the piece from which the opening above comes.
The policy under examination in that story is the Bush administration’s embrace of marriage as way to reduce poverty. Boo tells it through two friends who begin attending three days of classes offered by the state of Oklahoma through a local Baptist church on “how to get and stayed married.”
The story’s subhed asks the question: Is wedlock really a way of poverty?
The simple answer is yes. But Boo does not do simple because simple, despite our deepest desires, is not how the world works.
The story is 12,000 words long and reading it was revelatory. Boo did not harangue. She did not pontificate. She did not reduce two women from public housing to stereotypes. She took me into the lives of two friends. She revealed them as funny, warm, intelligent aspiring women who wanted partners with whom they could build better lives. She gave them presence and dignity.
The story does not ever answer the question of whether wedlock reduces poverty. It becomes abundantly, painfully clear that reaching wedlock in the first place — in a public housing community in which the local men who are not imprisoned are unemployed, underemployed or criminally occupied — is an almost unattainable goal. And for the women, finding work without reliable transportation, paying bills, trying to get their promising children into college and staying off welfare is a full-time job.
It is a piece that culminates in a kind of quiet devastation. It educated and moved me. It allowed me to see what the surface did not reveal. I have not stopped trying to do the same kind of journalism since.