Can You Get Out of Poverty Without Having to Beg?

LIVE TO SEE THE DAY: Coming of Age in American Poverty, by Nikhil Goyal

In 2011, Ryan Rivera, a Puerto Rican teenager from Kensington, one of the most troubled parts of one of the poorest big cities in America, sat listening to testimony under the ornamental gold ceiling of the Philadelphia City Council chamber. Finally, after five hours, he took the microphone. He was there, he said, to ask the council members not to close his school.

Years earlier, Ryan had run afoul of the law while in middle school. Now he was attending El Centro de Estudiantes, one of a dozen alternative fast-track high schools supported by city contracts that sought out students who had dropped out or held criminal records, and helped them get to graduation day. There were no metal detectors, Ryan noted, and nobody patted you down when you walked in the door. He was taking art and had an internship at a motorcycle shop. “Don’t take away my home,” he said.

The City Council would later remove El Centro from the chopping block, and credited student testimony in particular. But in “Live to See the Day,” the sociologist Nikhil Goyal writes that Ryan questioned why El Centro had been threatened with closure in the first place. The school district faced a $629 million budget deficit, but why target these schools? “Why did they have to beg the people in power for public schools that respected and helped their students?” Goyal asks. “Why wasn’t that a basic right for all?”

These questions are part of Goyal’s larger examination of American policies, institutions and systems — education, criminal justice, public assistance — that purport to help elevate children and families out of poverty and to keep society in order, but more often than not fail a swath of Americans who are surviving instead of living. The safety net is in tatters, Goyal shows, and poverty is a tightrope walk with no room for error.

“Live to See the Day” takes readers on a journey with Ryan as well as Emmanuel Coreano and Giancarlos Rodriguez — two other Puerto Rican teenagers who had to navigate the chaos and violence of Kensington before landing at El Centro. Goyal traces their troubles not just to geography but to mothers who also grew up in poverty, passing it to their offspring like a strand of DNA. One mother is raped for the first time at age 8 and then again and again throughout her childhood by different males in her life. When she gets the courage to call the police, no one follows through on her case.

Goyal knows teenagers. His first book, “One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student’s Assessment of School,” was published in 2012, when he was 17. Since then, he has served as a senior adviser to Senator Bernie Sanders, and he has a command of the history of federal, state and local education laws and social programs. “Live to See the Day” is really four different stories: the odysseys of the three teenagers and their mothers as well as an academic indictment of the policies that govern their lives.

The many threads of “Live to See the Day” are not always easy to track and the book might have benefited from focusing on one teen. While each of their stories is compelling, Ryan, Emmanuel and Giancarlos have so many people — relatives, friends, teachers, judges, social workers, mothers’ husbands and boyfriends — who come in and out of the picture that I sometimes found myself lost. I kept asking myself, What year is it? How old is he now?

Still, I could see how Ryan, Emmanuel and Giancarlos were distinct enough to want to tell all of their stories. Ryan is a troublemaker and prankster who ends up in the juvenile justice system. He dabbles in selling marijuana and crack to make ends meet. Giancarlos, a bright student who enjoys ballet, also turns to drug dealing. Both face teen pregnancy with different outcomes. Emmanuel, later named Corem, whose hustle was selling mixtape CDs, grapples with homelessness and gender identity.

Goyal is at his best when focusing on Ryan, who has the most fully formed story arc. The book begins with Ryan’s middle school prank, helping to start a trash can fire that he also tried to extinguish. This sets him on a path to never graduate or to end up in jail or dead. There are adults who were in a position to help who just gave up. I grew ill as Goyal relates how Ryan returned to middle school and overheard a teacher quip, “Oh look, our pyromaniac is back.”

Goyal is a vivid writer — the stories he tells about these kids’ circumstances are painful and viscerally frustrating — but his narrative is often stalled by long passages on failed policies. A chapter that details the history of Puerto Rican migration to Philadelphia begins smoothly, but it eventually meanders into a lengthy chronicle of American regulation of narcotics, from President Richard Nixon’s “war on drugs” to the end of the Reagan administration. The storytelling picks up again only to be interrupted by a wonky section on the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. I wished Goyal’s arsenal of data and history had been deployed only when absolutely pertinent to his subjects’ lives.

And those lives are rough. Every setback will put a pit in your stomach. But then you cheer (and I cried) as Ryan has some breakthroughs (and sympathetic adults) that put him on a path to escape poverty the way his mother, Rayni, almost did, making it to Temple University with dreams to become a psychologist, only to drop out when her support system fell apart.

Getting to that place where you can see a future that’s not filled with empty refrigerators and substandard housing with rats that bite you in the middle of the night is hard. The reader begins to ask lots of what-ifs, wishing for much better outcomes for all three teenagers.

That leads to Goyal’s point and his main policy proposal: “What if Emmanuel, Ryan and Giancarlos and their families had received a monthly child allowance starting from birth? They may have been able to consistently live in safe housing and afford groceries, utilities and other necessities.” When conceiving of a world beyond poverty, it’s the consistency that matters most. What if you never had to beg to keep your school from closing? Imagine that.

LIVE TO SEE THE DAY: Coming of Age in American Poverty | By Nikhil Goyal | 334 pp. | Metropolitan Books | $29.99

Nikita Stewart is the editor of real estate at The Times. More about Nikita Stewart

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