Educating for a Just and Sustainable World 

Facebook Twitter  Vimeo


A Powerful Account of Racism and Poverty in America Exposes Stark Inequalities in the World’s Wealthiest Economy

Stephen McCloskey

Here is a remarkable study of poverty in the United States (US) that exposes stark inequalities in the world’s wealthiest economy.  It takes us on an eight-year journey in the life of Dasani Coates, an African-American child who is eleven years old when we meet her living in a homeless shelter in Brooklyn, New York.  The book is a study in immersion in which the author-as-researcher becomes a fly on the wall witness of Dasani and her family’s struggle to survive and stay together as they negotiate the homeless system in America. Invisible Child is in many respects a work about the insidious nature of neoliberalism.  For example, Dasani is named after a bottled water from the Coca-Cola stable and her younger sister, Avianna, is named after the more expensive Evian water.  Their mother was named for that sweet French fragrance Chanel.  As Chanel later recognises, ‘Even the names of her daughters bowed to a white material world’. Invisible Child contrasts the gentrification of New York and the growth of luxury high tower accommodation with the withdrawal of welfare supports from impoverished families that might induce ‘dependence’ on the state.  Dasani is one of 22,000 homeless children in New York in 2012 when the story begins and, by 2016, this figure has climbed to 100,000. The question looming over the book, posed with barely controlled anger, is how a country with a GDP per capita of $63,593.44 can subject so many of its citizens, most of them African Americans, to such an appalling existence.  The real strength of the book is that it attempts an answer to this question by using Dasani’s personal narrative to highlight systemic failings and racism rooted in slavery and the Jim Crow laws created in the 1830s to enforce racial segregation. 

A day in the life of Dasani

Dasani shares a single room in Auburn homeless shelter with her parents, Chanel and Supreme, and her seven siblings.  Their building has been cited 13 times by city inspectors for lead paint, mould, roaches and vermin.  The family sleep on mattresses on the floor without dignity and privacy with fellow residents including addicts, prostitutes and severe mental health cases.  For a child moving from the family room to a common kitchen area to heat a bottle in a microwave means the possibility of running a gauntlet of threats and behavioural problems.  Dasani is the first to rise and checks immediately on the heaving bodies of her siblings.  She is what one of her teachers describes as the ‘typical parentified child’ who ‘will put the mask on everyone else and the oxygen runs out’.  The long line for breakfast in the communal area will often mean skipping a meal to escort her younger brothers and sisters to school or a bus.  Despite the stress of living with poverty and regularly observing traumatic family arguments and crises, Dasani exhibits an ‘“intuitive” approach to learning’ with her heroic principal and teacher acutely aware of the load she is carrying.  Dasani’s family lives on $65 a day which amounts to $6.50 per person when their benefits are totalled and divided by the eight children and two adults.  So much for welfare scroungers and benefit cheats milking the system; a myth advanced by Republican and Democrat politicians and presidents alike for political ends. In the Fort Greene area where Dasani’s ‘family residence’ is located, the top five per cent of residents earn 76 times the income of the bottom quintile.  The mayor of New York from 2002-13, the publishing billionaire Michael Bloomberg, ‘broke ground’ on 19 luxury buildings in Fort Greene in a period of three years using ‘aggressive re-zoning and generous subsidies’, increasing white residents by 80 per cent.  Bloomberg’s administration also launched a string of success academy schools which will displace public schools like McKinney’s Secondary School of the Arts attended by Dasani.  Bloomberg closes 137 public schools while opening 174 academy schools.  Places at success academies are ‘determined by a random lottery’ which reduces education to the luck of the draw rather than a state-provided human right.  

Historical antecedents

The author traces the earliest ancestral roots of Dasani’s family back to a slave called David in 1835 under the ownership of a slaver of English background called Sykes based in North Carolina.  Her great grandfather, Wesley Junior ‘June’ Sykes, fought as part of an all-Black division in the Second World War.  June Sykes joined the great migration of six million African Americans from rural areas of the Southern states to urban centres in the North and West between 1910 and 1970.  These newly arriving migrants soon found themselves marginalised and largely segregated, denied access to home ownership, the ‘key to accruing wealth’.  ‘The exclusion of African Americans from real estate – not to mention college, white-collar jobs and the ability to vote – laid the foundation of a lasting poverty that Dasani would inherit’.  By 1975, Black families represented 44 per cent of the eleven million Americans on welfare and yet represented 10 per cent of the nation’s population.  Dasani’s family, like so many other inner city African American families in the 1980s, suffered terribly from the crack epidemic that claimed lives, increased crime and scarred communities.  But the author is clear that the social disadvantages and racism encountered by African American communities in New York underpin the conveyor belt of problems they confront. When Dasani’s story appears in a series of articles in the New York Times in 2013, the newly elected Mayor, Bill de Blasio, denounces the homeless crisis in New York.  ‘The kid was dealt a bad hand’, argues outgoing Mayor Bloomberg, ‘I don’t know quite why.  That’s the way God works.   Sometimes, some of us are lucky and some of us are not’.  He ignores the one million people who have swollen the ranks on food stamps also dealt a ‘bad hand’ on his watch.  

Education for the poor

Thanks to her educational performance and the considerable efforts of her school, Dasani secures a place at the Milton Hershey School, funded by a trust with a controlling share in the Hershey Chocolate Company.  The school resembles a form of child sponsorship by lifting a young person from the mire of poverty and catapulting them into ‘the richest private school for children in America’.  It does nothing to tackle the systemic causes of Dasani’s poverty or her family’s, and by separating her from her parents and siblings, it creates anxiety and guilt for the unravelling of the family unit while she is away.  Like many children exposed to long-term poverty and stress, Dasani is prone to aggressive behaviour and resistant to authority.  She struggles to reconcile her new regimented ‘home away from home’ with its ‘top-notch personal attention’ and concern about the welfare of her siblings.  The book offers no easy resolution and leaves the family amid an unending struggle to restore their family unit and negotiate the demands of an alphabet soup of state agencies.

The invisibility of poverty

Andrea Elliott, the author of Invisible Child, points to the invisibility of chronic poverty when she suggests that Dasani’s childhood ‘was shaped by the encounter with two worlds – the homeless and the housed, black disadvantage and white privilege, the seen and the unseen’.  Her book was researched over eight years and drew upon 132 hours of audio recordings and 28 hours of video with more than 200 interviews conducted.  She avoids the trap of reducing all homeless people and African Americans to a single narrative by constantly locating Dasani’s family life in the wider context of homelessness, poverty and racism in New York and the US in contemporary and historical terms. Elliott refers back to the Old English word for understand – understandan – meaning to ‘stand in the midst of’ in describing her own methodology.  ‘[W]e have experienced enough of something new’, she says, ‘something formerly unseen, to be provoked, humbled, awakened or even changed by it’.  Few readers of this fine book will be unmoved by its powerful content and some might even be changed by it or moved to try to change the despicable racism and neoliberalism underpinning Dasani’s short life.

Elliott, Andrea (2022) Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival and Hope in New York City, London: Penguin Books.

Stephen McCloskey is Director of the Centre for Global Education and editor of Policy and Practice: A Development Education Review.  His latest book is Global Learning and International Development in the Age of Neoliberalism (London and New York: Routledge, 2022).