The New York Times reported that over the weekend five of the city's mayoral candidates spent a night in the Lincoln Houses in East Harlem, a public housing complex which shelters 3,100 residents. The "sleepover," as it was termed, was "coordinated by the National Action Network, the advocacy group led by the Rev. Al Sharpton," and was intended to give the candidates, "some of whom," the Times notes, "reside in million-dollar homes," a greater "understanding of the plight of low-income families." Which, that's a good thing, right? Empathy can be hard to come by when you live the kind of elite lifestyle that many of the mayoral candidates do, so maybe, just like the Food Stamp Challenge, this can increase a candidate's awareness of how less economically fortunate New Yorkers live? I mean, sure! But also, also, if you believe that this is ANYTHING other than a blatant publicity stunt, then I have a bridge that I'd like to sell you.
Perhaps I'm just particularly humorless today, on a day when a lot of Americans are paying an inordinate amount of attention to the birth of an otherwise ordinary baby who is only special insofar as it comes from so much inbreeding that it is almost guaranteed a weak chin and the unfortunate hairline of its father (ok, that's mean, but seriously, it's just a stupid baby), but whatever the case, I'm kind of sick of this type of poverty tourism being done in the name of political campaigning. The theory goes that each of the candidates who participated in this sleepover—Anthony Weiner, John Liu, Bill de Blasio, Christine Quinn, and William C. Thompson—would achieve enlightenment on issues related to poverty and public housing and then, once elected, make everything all better for the rest of time. So what kind of things did the candidates learn during their slumber parties?
Well, after a night where they all "slept on floors or sofas, braved rooms without air-conditioning, and endured showers with weak water pressure...stayed up past midnight watching television shows like “CSI: Miami” and bonded with residents about the Yankees and the heat wave," this is what they discovered! Quinn "said she was startled by the condition of the bathrooms, 'If you were in a horror movie, you would be just a couple of minutes away from the black mold overtaking the bathroom.'” A horror movie! Sounds terrible. And de Blasio? What did he learn? Well, "he was taken aback by the poor condition of Ms. Wilson’s apartment, where a set of mold-covered cabinets lies on the floor of the kitchen, two years after a flood, despite her repeated requests for repairs, [de Blasio said] 'If this were a condo building just blocks away from here, it would have been fixed in days.'” Oh, really? Repairs are a long time coming in public housing? What a total shock. And John Liu? Well, he didn't have anything to say specifically about the housing situation, but here's what he learned about the residents: “'The major complaints were about the fact that they needed jobs,' Mr. Liu said. 'They wanted to work.'” Hmm. They want to work, do they? Fascinating.
So, to sum up, after spending a night in public housing, only to be greeted in the morning by a bank of cameras and a huge media presence, the mayoral candidates learned that repairs don't happen quickly and unemployed people wish they had more job opportunities. And, also, everyone is disappointed in the Yankees. But shouldn't the candidates already know this? I mean, I know this and I'm not running for mayor. This kind of stunt is reminiscent of the Food Stamp Challenge, most famously undertaken by beloved, media-hungry New Jersey politician Cory Booker, wherein people willingly commit to eating only what could be purchased by food stamps for a specified period of time. Weiner attempted the Challenge last month, which New York Magazine noted is "in keeping with Weiner’s outer-borough populist shtick," though it's unclear if it was much of a challenge for him because Weiner admitted at the time, “I’m not a good example. I eat only periodically.”
So then why do it? Oh, just for personal gain and to appear sympathetic to the plight of the economically disadvantaged? Cool. You know what though? This type of grandstanding has absolutely nothing to do with good governance. And, in fact, all it serves to do is continue the othering of the people who do live in these situations and who are struggling to get food on the table using only food stamps and who do really need jobs. How must it feel when a mayoral candidate spends the night in your home, enjoying your hospitality, and then says the next day that he "spent last night living with a family living in conditions you would never tolerate," as Anthony Weiner told the press? I don't know exactly, but I imagine it would feel pretty shitty to hear that the way you live is intolerable and, as Christine Quinn put it, like a "horror movie."
The bottom line is, these candidates don't need to make these hyperbolic statements in order to come up with plans to change the system. No one needs to "suffer" through a week of living on a food stamp budget to understand that being economically disadvantaged makes for a difficult life. The problem with this kind of poverty tourism is that it takes away a certain degree of agency from the people who are living in public housing or who are eating using food stamps. It implies that they are helpless to affect change, and that, just because they need government assistance, their lives are somehow "less" than those of the people who don't. In fact, this is not the case at all. Public assistance is not an inherently awful thing of which people should feel ashamed. It is a necessary part of having a healthy and functioning society, and, when it works right, can help people empower themselves. So instead of dipping their toes in the pool of public assistance, only to dramatically run from the water because it's just too damn cold, maybe the candidates should focus on making sure that, come September (primaries...wheeeee!) they have cohesive plans to fix these problems and address the ongoing shortage of decent and affordable housing. And it'll be hard to do that if they haven't had a good night sleep because of the cameras flashing in their faces as they roll out their sleeping bags.
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