Jonathan Kozol is a critical observer of the contemporary scene after the manner of Charles Dickens as well as a skilled polemicist in the tradition of Victor Hugo or Lincoln Steffens. He begins his study with a statistical analysis of the problem of the homeless in the United States, focusing on New York City, then clothes the facts of the case by examining the daily lives of homeless people. In the process, he gives a voice to those who must cope with what has been termed the “culture of poverty” and thereby attempts to demolish, or at least seriously undermine, the myths which stand in the way of any alleviation of this tragic situation.
In his first work, DEATH AT AN EARLY AGE, Kozol charged the Boston School Committee and the system they administer with nothing less than “spiritual and psychological murder.” In RACHEL AND HER CHILDREN, he discovers that the same indictment may be made with respect to the system which deals with those who find, in most cases through no fault of their own, that they no longer can secure an independent existence for themselves or their children. As the unsettling case studies unfold, the reader is disturbed by the seemingly indifferent and unreasonable bureaucracy often faced by the homeless.
Some may believe that Kozol’s solution to the problem is a bit simplistic--that the problem of the homeless in America results simply from a lack of affordable housing seems to obvious--yet his recitation of the facts is compelling and persuasive. The United States spent $13,348,800,000 on the reconstruction of Europe after World War II under the auspices of the Marshall Plan. That was indeed a massive expenditure, and yet during the same period the American people spent more than $31.7 billion on alcoholic beverages.
When the cost of many of the programs which serve the homeless is compared with the expenditure for the private dining room for the Secretary of Defense, it seems clear that our national priorities are misplaced. RACHEL AND HER CHILDREN will test the reader’s powers of moral discrimination and may finally galvanize the American people to such a state of righteous indignation that those who take refuge behind insane regulations and those who profit from the misery of the homeless will be driven out into the wilderness.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. LXXXIV, January 1, 1988, p. 730.
Business Week. February 29, 1988, p. 16.
The Christian Century. CV, March 2, 1988, p. 216.
The Christian Science Monitor. April 1, 1988, p. B4.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. February 7, 1988, p. 1.
The Nation. CCXLVI, April 2, 1988, p. 465.
The New Republic. CXCVIII, June 6, 1988, p. 18.
The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, January 31, 1988, p. 7.
Newsweek. CXI, February 1, 1988, p. 55.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXII, December 25, 1987, p. 66.
Time. CXXXI, February 8, 1988, p. 74.
Tribune Books. January 24, 1988, p. 1.
The Wall Street Journal. CCXI, February 18, 1988, p. 20.
The Washington Post Book World. XVIII, January 31, 1988, p. 1.
Rachel and Her Children
The January release of Rachel and Her Children: Homeless Families in America was especially timely because it occurred during the season when the plight of the homeless elicits the most concern from the public. A well-established spokesman for the underprivileged, Jonathan Kozol previously prodded the national conscience with his books Death at an Early Age: The Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in the Boston Public Schools (1967) and Illiterate America (1985). Here he details the ravaging effects of homelessness on adults as well as children, who, he submits, “have become the fastest-growing sector of the homeless.” Countering the perception that the homeless population is composed solely of drug addicts, alcoholics, and the mentally ill, he presents evidence that it is, in fact, increasingly formed of families who have lost homes following a major catastrophe. Although he fails to array his statistical information in a persuasive manner, he nevertheless succeeds in conveying the...
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