Over the course of a few years, journalist Lauren Sandler shadowed 22-year-old Camila as she went into labor at a Brooklyn shelter, navigated the administrative burden of systems like welfare benefits and housing vouchers, and relentlessly fought to create a home and life in a country that’s wired to make that impossible for the estimated 38 million Americans living in poverty, and half a million who are homeless.
Sandler’s new book, This Is All I Got: A New Mother’s Search for Home, is an intimate illustration of the gutting inequalities that define the American social service system, when, amid moralizing on “bootstraps” and “getting ahead,” working poor individuals and families are continually left behind. Now, in light of COVID-19, even more Americans are staring down challenges explored in the book: lack of affordable housing, the complexity of welfare and unemployment systems, and attempting to create a stable life in impossible circumstances and dead-ends.
“It's a kind of bleak moment to realize how relevant this book is,” says Sandler now. In 2017, one in eight women were living in poverty, and women made up three-quarters of Americans experiencing homelessness with families. An estimated 30% of single mothers and their families are living in poverty. Women of color are already disproportionately impacted by eviction and poverty — the number of working-poor Latina and African American women is over double the number of white women. Now, lack of any accessible social safety net has been amplified by COVID-19, as has racial inequity as record-breaking numbers of Americans filing for unemployment.
When it came to Sandler’s reporting, Camila was a standout subject. “I wasn't looking to just get something out of her, I was looking to explore her life in relationship with her,” Sandler says, calling Camila a “formidable” person. “I really did feel like if she couldn't make [navigating the system] work, then no one could.” Sandler explains that there’s always been a mindset that if you’re smart enough, ambitious enough, and make the right choices, anyone can get anywhere in America. “I think that's always been a fallacy, but I think that it has increasingly become one,” Sandler says. “And I think that right now, that [ideal] will be true for probably almost no one.”
Over the five years Sandler spent reporting the book, which included less sitting sources down for traditional interviews, and more showing up to hang out, she explains, the nuances of her own privilege were something she was exceedingly mindful of: The fact that she is a white woman journalist with privilege, writing about a poor woman of color, is something that is on “almost every page of this book, and is something that I've been aware of through the whole process,” Sandler says, adding it was something she and Camila talked about frankly. In one scene early in the book, Camila discusses how she wants a nanny for her baby, and “all the women at the shelter think that she's crazy,” Sandler says. “But she doesn't see herself as someone who shouldn't have a nanny.”
“And she's right. She's goddamn right,” Sandler adds. “And that was a part of our connection. We both saw her as someone who deserved nothing less than anyone else in the world.” In another scene, Sandler’s then-eight-year-old daughter is furious when she was told that Camila and her son couldn’t simply move into their living room. “That’s the day my daughter learned what a hypocrite was,” Sandler says. “I still believe that.”
InStyle spoke with Sandler about the book’s increased relevance as the COVID-19 crisis roars on, what she learned over the course of reporting, and what she hopes readers will take away from the book.
InStyle: Tell me a bit about the process of reporting this book. I love how you describe it as a diagnosis of our past mistakes and in a way, a narrative prophecy of the future.
I've been living with [this book] for the past five years. I keep living with it through these really traumatic, vast transitions that keep pushing me to say, “OK, what does this mean now?” And at every step of the way, tragically, I've realized that [the book] just becomes more and more relevant. Because over the five years that I have been reporting, we have continued to shred our safety net. We have continued to disregard a human rights crisis in this country around housing and welfare and who gets to live a decent life. And while there have been some really great moments for feminism in the past few years, [the discourse] has also pulled away from the very grave crisis of inequality more and more.
Now, we find ourselves, having been in very dire straits all along, suddenly, with 30 million new unemployment cases filed in the past six weeks; a deep awareness of what it means that before the pandemic, 60% of the country couldn't afford more than $400 of a dip in their bank account to maintain rent and food. Here we are in the greatest economic catastrophe of our lifetime, and maybe far beyond that. I have witnessed how ill-equipped our system is to help people in the best of times, and now it's the worst of times. I've also witnessed how ill-equipped our society is to understand the circumstances of people in need and the reasons that people are in need.
One thing I thought about, in light of all of these unemployment claims and people waiting on unemployment checks, was about the sheer amount of time and paperwork.
I knew that it was bad to be poor in America, to be poor in New York City, to be homeless. We all know that that's bad. That's why I wrote the book. But the thing that really did stun me, that I carry all the time, is how impossibly consuming the system is. What it means to have gone to a welfare center to spend five entire days there to have someone print out a single piece of paper saying that a check had been paid, or, you know, taking the subway all around the city for days, weeks on end just to get nowhere.
There's this theory called administrative burden, which is basically that these things are intentionally impossible. The wait times are intentionally impossible, the policies are intentionally inconsistent. The paperwork is intentionally obtuse, so that people will just give up and we won't have to pay for them. I definitely saw administrative burden every day of Camila's life, and it is the thing that shocked me most about how impossible poverty is.
This is something we required people to do while they're working full-time, right? You can't get welfare unless you're working full-time or you're in school full-time, or you're showing up at a job placement center to sit in a waiting room full-time, while someone else is taking care of your kids full-time. And yet, you also need this full-time job of navigating the system. I think that, in the past month and a half, 30 million new Americans have just entered this system and have just begun to see how impossible it is. If those numbers of people having to live through it on their own isn't enough to shake us into some sort of radical change, I don't know what it is.
In the epilogue, you write “we must first look at each other in order to look after each other.” There are so many comments about eagerness to “get back to normal,” but normal wasn’t working for so many people to begin with. Especially right now, is there any one thing that you hope people take away from this book?
There’s something that's just started in the past couple days, which is a number of organizations organizing around the language “build back better,” meaning going back to normal A) isn't an option, and B) shouldn't be a goal. Normal wasn't okay. And if there is any advantage to this incredibly cruel moment, it is, hopefully, that people have been shaken out of complacency that there's been an opportunity for contemplation.
I'm also hoping that it will open the door to see each other in a different way. The reason that I wrote this book is that, when we talk about these issues, they're in vast terms; they're in big data numbers. And those conversations are important, but unless we actually can feel other people's experiences, unless we can live through these experiences through reading about them, if we don't have people in our own lives, who we’re witnessing similar trials of, then we never actually get it. We never actually feel it. It feels too huge, and monolithic, and untouchable and remote. So I'm really hoping that these moments won't just be understood in terms of big numbers, and huge intractable problems, but in terms of people living lives, because I think that few of us know people who will be unaffected by this time, and that's something that we can't turn away from and accept.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.