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Down on Their Luck’

In response to:

The Homeless from the April 21, 1994 issue

To the Editors:

For most of us, homelessness and extreme poverty are issues of tragedy and pain. They are also issues of courage and survival against the odds. At least they are matters of some passion and controversy. When viewed by Christopher Jencks [“The Homeless,” NYR April 21, 1994], however, these subjects turn out to be rather dull and cold, focused primarily on whose statistics are right and whose are wrong. Nothing seems to be terribly wrong with our system.

It is regrettable that Jencks’ review so quickly moves over the ethnographic treatments of the homeless such as Snow & Anderson’s Down on Their Luck, Toth’s The Mole People, and my own idea of the daily struggle to survive that the poorest Americans go through. Ethnographic work also helps us move past the stigmatizing labels so often employed (“homeless,” “substance abusers,” “mentally ill,” etc.) so that subjects may speak directly to us. When poor people’s actual stories are told they are no longer defined by their weaknesses and pathologies.

Jencks suggests a sharp difference between my perspective and that of Snow and Anderson’s, yet a quick look through my book would have revealed many positive references to their work while the back of my book displays David Snow’s very favorable review. Although we are working with different populations and are making some different points, our basic enterprise is the same: to reveal the people behind the statistics and to show them not as a collection of pathologies but as active rational actors.

Speaking of labels, while I have no problem with Jencks’ defining me as a “radical,” it might have been more useful to the reader to reveal a tiny bit of the book’s argument rather than simply affixing a label.

David Wagner, Ph.D.
Portland, Main

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