‘This Is All I Got’ and the Looming Middleman

Just give people the money. Jesus. – my thoughts while reading

This biographical account should be an exposé against the ‘Big Government’ that American Republicans so often rail against.

In ‘This Is All I Got‘ by Lauren Sandler, Camila is a twenty-two-year old single mother who navigates a labyrinth of a system in New York in order to make a life for herself and her son. Every aspect of government assistance comes with rules and regulations often pitted against another aspect of government assistance. Camila spends hours upon hours of her life in waiting rooms.

Her college tuition may be free, but how do you do college without stable housing and childcare? For the entire book she is clinging to the edge of staying in school. Through each crisis, I had an ‘oh, wow’ moment that she hadn’t given up, found a minimum wage job, and resolved to stay in the system. It’s exhausting to read; it’s probably more exhausting to live.

In addition to securing her economic future, Camila is equally searching for a semblance of home and belonging. Since her son is effectively the only family she has in New York, she takes a trip to the Dominican Republic with hopes to connect with her father’s family. While she is scrambling to escape homelessness, she is also desperate to not be alone.

You could spend the book judging why she gets her nails done or why she buys a plane ticket. Sure.

Camila is exceptional, but not perfect – and holy hell, who do we expect to be perfect through this kind of contemporary American poverty? (I’m mentally punting any “back in my day…” chatter. Namaste). It’s as though only those who can completely turn off their humanity and become a machine will achieve long-lasting stability. No spoilers here on whether or not Camila is able to do this.

To my first point, the Big Government paternalism seems a drag: a different office and different rules, deadlines, and paperwork for every little thing. I don’t really know the answer here, but I’m leaning towards just cutting people a single check. It seems it would be more cost effective for taxpayers on top of giving people back their time and energy so they could focus on what they need to do.

If this is what Big Government is, then I’m against it – it’s a mess, as outlined in the book. Having people spend their lives in limbo (and waiting rooms) for bare necessities doesn’t seem like a good plan ongoing. What makes me a radical liberal (I guess) is recognizing that, but still not wanting to leave people high and dry in this rich, but inequitable society. Maybe I’m a universal basic income supporter after all.

My final point is that this book was written by an upper middle class white author who immersed herself into Camila’s life. Sandler addresses this, even through uncomfortable moments where she chooses not to help Camila in order to uphold journalistic integrity. On one hand, it’s incredibly important to know this story, but on the other hand, I really wish this was written by Camila or someone that actually lived it – you know, cut the middleman. Is that impossible to ask the publishing industry to try a little harder to just get to the source?

In fact, that sentiment seems to also be my main takeaway from the Camila’s story of navigating the system: why don’t we just cut the middleman?