Jonathan Kozol, Rachel and Her Children: Homeless Families in America (Ballantine, 1988)
Reissued in paperback by Fawcett Books in 1989
Society often shuns the homeless, Kozol writes, but he argues that we're reluctant to blame ourselves for creating their plight. By observing and talking to homeless families with children (specifically in New York City), Kozol offers a "slice of life" narrative intertwined with sociological facts and projections. The book cites rising unemployment, rising rents, and federal cuts in assistance -- a confluence of factors that creates the "captive state" of
homelessness. He emphasizes that homelessness creates an underclass, marked by suffocation, shame, and overwhelming hopelessness.
By spending time at the Martinique Hotel, Kozol grows close to the relatively "lucky" families crowded into this decaying fortress of government-subsidized shelter. He constantly rails against the ineptitude of the government, which shells out money for the tenants' rent but refuses to grant them a lesser amount of rent money for their own home. He empathizes with the common sense and common dignity of his subjects, who can only be described as desperate -- for food, for space, for money, for change. His interest seems most piqued by homeless mothers, who must live with the fear that sickness, poverty, or state intervention will steal away their children.
Kozol's alliance with his subjects makes a powerful argument on behalf of the poor. The facts are sobering, and the stories can be tearjerking. As he writes in his epilogue, he wishes "to pay tribute to the dignity, the courage and the strength with which so many parents manage to hold up beneath the truly terrifying problems they confront. I have been cautioned ... not to romanticize these people. Have I observed this warning? Not enough perhaps. It is very hard to strike a balance."
An epilogue acknowledges a grim future for America's homeless approaching the year 2000.
Kozol studied at Harvard University and then at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. Since the 1960s, he has explored and investigated poverty, race, illiteracy and public education -- particularly how children are effected by these issues. He takes a special interest in addressing social concerns, and promoting social justice, across America.
Newsweek called the book "bitterly eloquent." The Los Angeles Times called it "compelling, moving, eloquent ... an extended tour of Hell." The New York Times said the book was "a searing indictment of society." The Chicago Sun-Times asserted that Kozol is "today's most eloquent spokesman for America's disenfranshised." Rachel and Her Children won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award and the Conscience in Media Award from the American Society of Journalists and Authors.
New York City Department of Homeless Services
An overview of Kozol's career