Review | The stories of these children will change the way you think about poverty

Each of the three protagonists in sociologist Nikhil Goyal’s new book, “Live to See the Day: Coming of Age in American Poverty,” is navigating a pivotal juncture: adolescence, that unique and universally exhausting stage of human development when one moment can sometimes change the trajectory of life. For Ryan Rivera, that moment is being among a group of preteen boys who set fire to a trash can near their middle school’s atrium, a childish mistake that cast him into the school-to-prison pipeline. Corem Coreano, who came out as queer, and then changed their name and pronouns, ultimately made the difficult choice to leave home because of their mother’s refusal to leave an abusive relationship. And Giancarlos Rodriguez was — puzzlingly — thrown out of Philadelphia’s education system after fighting to protect his and his peers’ future by leading student walkouts to protest school closures and educational budget cuts.

Rooted in almost a decade of reporting, “Live to See the Day” is a sweeping indictment of poverty, America’s educational system, and how comfortably they both interact with the criminal justice system to upend the lives of young people and underprivileged families of color. All three protagonists hail from Kensington, an impoverished neighborhood in North Philadelphia. According to Goyal, babies born with an address in Kensington aren’t expected to live beyond their 71st birthday — a staggering 17 years less than children born to families in Society Hill, less than four miles away.

A chunk of the book is spent world-building so readers can grasp the muddy terrain these children navigate, and Goyal does so by layering social systems atop one another so readers can draw connections. As Goyal explains it, underfunded public schools are at the heart of the issue. Schools are governed by racist educational policies that push students into the criminal system through the use of metal detectors, zero-tolerance rules and temperamental resource officers. Children leave the schoolyard and return home to families drowning because of crippling poverty, food insecurity, chronic joblessness, inequitable access to physical and mental health care, domestic violence, evictions, and addiction. In their social interactions, anything perceived as “soft” — whether it be snitching or queerness — doesn’t align with survival.

“Children’s lives in Kensington are dominated by the exhausting need to negotiate, avoid, and neutralize violence: the violence of stomachs twisting from hunger, sharp drafts striking flesh while bathing in buckets of water, sadistic security forces, confinement to cages, unlivable shelter, and navigating the hypermasculine logic of the streets,” writes Goyal. “These are the shameful failings of the state, not the character defects of the people.”

Goyal deftly keeps the reader aware that, for most of the book, Ryan, Corem and Giancarlos are children. And while data and deep academic research serve as the book’s bones, these children’s stories are the meat. Adept storytellers understand that the most compelling evidence for systems’ effects on individuals and families is found in their personal chronologies. The book is laced with poignant examples that refrain from dabbling in “trauma porn” at the expense of people of color, while highlighting how it’s never just a single system beating somebody down. In one particularly troubling incident, Corem is bitten on the face by a rat while sleeping. Afterward, their mother treated the wound with hydrogen peroxide and sent them back to bed. Substandard housing led to the bite, and the instinct to remedy maladies at home because of inadequate access to dignified health care delayed Corem from seeing a doctor until the following day. This is how poverty functions in the wealthiest nation on the planet. It is cruel, demoralizing and, perhaps most significant, evil and unnecessary.

It doesn’t have to be this way, Goyal rightly asserts, as evidenced by the safety-net-focused economic agenda that received sweeping support during the first year of the coronavirus pandemic. National and state policy interventions reduced child poverty, supported family stability and diminished economic insecurity. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported in 2022 that the robust pandemic relief efforts achieved historic gains against poverty and inequality by significantly reducing poverty rates and providing much-needed support to low-income families — such as expanding the Child Tax Credit and direct cash payments.

“What if [Corem], Ryan, and Giancarlos and their families had received a monthly child allowance starting from birth?” Goyal writes.

A different coming of age may have been possible.

Julia Craven is a senior writer and editor with New America’s Better Life Lab. She’s also the brain behind “Salt + Yams,” a newsletter dedicated to Black health modalities.

Live to See the Day

Coming of Age in American Poverty

By Nikhil Goyal

Metropolitan Books. 352 pp. $29.99

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