by Catherine Bleish
Submitted Sunday March 4, 2012
Children in the South Bronx
When faced with chronic asthma, gang violence, drug addiction, poverty, the systematic destruction of the family, and an aids epidemic, it is reasonable that the residents of America’s most deplorable neighborhood would seek to understand the root of these issues. Jonathan Kozol’s Amazing Grace provides great insight into the lives of those who reside in what some consider the most dangerous streets in America, the South Bronx (Kozol ,1995). The firsthand accounts of suffering, segregation, and isolation documented through observation and conversation depict a world of struggle and turmoil unknown by most (Kozol, 1995). The problem is strikingly obvious once witnessed, but the source of the problem remains a web of speculation and blame. Could the institutions designed to help those in need be the institutions creating conditions ripe for poverty?
Who is Responsible
Ultimately, as human beings, the first layer of responsibility for our lives is one’s self. There is no guarantee that anyone else will ensure we have shelter overhead, food in our bellies or clothing on our backs. These are things that we must continuously strive for if we are to thrive in our environment. Not all human beings are able to provide for themselves, especially young children. Children do not have the choice of being brought into this world, they are brought here by the force of conception and birth, through the choices of adults. This processes creates the moral obligation of the parent to provide for the child until it is able to provide for his or her self and makes the decision to emancipate his or herself from the parents. This means that the first layer of responsibility for a child is the parent.
When an adult is not able to provide for themselves or their children, the community usually takes on some degree of responsibility in caring for their family. This can be done through extended family, neighbors, churches, and even government. Many of the people described in Kozol’s Amazing Grace had turned to their community for help, yet the neighborhood was failing to overcome the many obstacles they faced (Kozol, 1995). Were the institutions they turned to for help actually aggravating and perpetuating their situation?
It can be argued that government is responsible for not only contributing to these problems, but that government is also responsible for preventing the implementation of natural solutions by individuals to better their own lives. According to left libertarian philosopher, Charles Johnson, “Government anti-poverty programs are classic case of the therapeutic state setting out to treat disorders created by the state itself” (Johnson, 2007). He claims that “urban poverty as we know it is, in fact, exclusively a creature of state intervention in consensual economic dealing” (Johnson, 2007). Governments limit labor opportunities and housing opportunities through their interventionist policies. These limitations done in the name of benefiting the community are in fact causing much harm.
The first limitation placed on the people by various levels of government is a limitation on labor opportunities. Governments create “black market” trades when they outlaw entrepreneurial activities such as the sale of certain recreational drugs or the sale of one’s body as a prostitute. By outlawing entire industries, those who fear government sponsored consequences for their actions will not engage in business activities that otherwise may have provided an income opportunity for them. For example, someone who has a passion for growing and selling marijuana has to do so while avoiding the federal government, or simply choose to not grow and sell at all.
Prohibition destroys families and leads to much of the violence surrounding the drug trade. By incarcerating an income producing parent, the other is usually forced to become a ward of the state in order to survive. According to Kozol’s research, the physical removal of these individuals from society did not stop the crimes from occurring, only changes the names and faces involved (Kozol, 1995). He argues, “after one group of criminals is gone, as the experience of countless neighborhoods makes clear, another group of lower-level dealers and apprentice pimps … generally emerges very soon to take their place, because the market of tormented people who need drugs, or think they do, to face the pain of living, still remains” (Kozol, 1995). Thus families are torn apart in the name of getting drugs off the streets and yet drugs remain on the streets and another family has lost its income and stability. Forcing the supply and provision of drugs to the “black market” creates a disincentive for individuals to use existing channels of dispute resolution for issues such as theft and fraud, as a result many drug dealers / traffickers turn to gangs instead of the police as a means of protecting their lucrative trade. Not only does the illegality of particular businesses limit “job” availability, but it creates danger for those working in the industry.
“Gray markets” are created when a government implements an extensive licensing or permitting process for occupations such as cosmetology and taxi cabs. Often this red tape will price entire sectors of the population out of a particular trade or industry (Johnson, 1997). One example in New York City is the taxi cab industry. Not only are the number of cabs allowed on the road limited by the city government, but the cost of acquiring one of the coveted “medallion” permission slips in 1996 started at $158,000. Additionally, cab drivers were required to pay a $550 annual cab registration fee to New York City (Johnson, 2007). This system of limited cab permits at a very high cost gives large cab companies monopoly power over the individuals wanting to run a small cab business. This severely limits labor and income opportunities for an entire class of people.
Government also limits access to housing opportunities. According to Johnson, “the daily experience of the urban poor is shaped by geographical concentration in socially and culturally isolated ghetto neighborhoods within the larger city....” (Johnson, 2007). Kozol’s documentation agrees with this assertion and he comments on how most of the people sent to live in the South Bronx are people of color (Kozol, 1995). The people interviewed by Kozol often spoke of being treated poorly when visiting other parts of the city, so they chose to stick to their dilapidated and dangerous areas out of routine and a sense of belonging (Kozol, 1995). “These forms of isolation ‘are not voluntary states’. Segregation, he concluded, ‘is neither sought or imposed by healthy... human beings” (Kozol, 1995).
Culturally banished to a certain part of town, the people of the South Bronx then face additional housing issues presented by government. Limits are set on how many people can live in a building or who can share housing; this is done administratively by city government officials through zoning laws (Johnson, 2007). This creates an artificial demand for housing as people who would have lived together are forced to obtain separate dwellings, thus creating an artificial rise in housing prices which limits the housing opportunities for those already living on a minimal and fixed budget.
It is not uncommon for families to find themselves one paycheck away from homelessness as “fixed costs of living - rent, food, clothing, and so on - consume most or all of a family’s income, with little or no access to credit, savings, or insurance to safeguard them from unexpected disasters” (Johnson, 2007). When tragedy hits and housing is lost, the government at times chooses to make it difficult for people to simply survive on the land. If you try to live out of your car you may find yourself hassled about where you park, if you try to live in an abandoned house or building you will soon find yourself escorted out, if you camp at a public camp ground you are expected to pay and if you join a shanty town or tent city you risk becoming victim of a raid/evacuation. While some of these tent cities have fought for use of dilapidated land and won the ability to homestead the property (National ,2010), typically things turn out differently, “once homeless, they are left exposed not only to the elements, but also to harassment or arrest by the police for loitering or vagrancy, even on public property, in efforts to coerce them into overcrowded and dangerous institutional shelters”. (Johnson, 2007)
A Citizen’s Responsibility
By limiting access to labor and housing opportunities, participating governments are in part responsible for creating the conditions that the children of South Bronx must live with every day. Governments may have initiated these laws, rules and regulations with the best of intentions, but the reality is a nightmare. It is time for government to release their grasp from the necks of the impoverished and allow people to naturally flourish and rebound as humans have proven so willing to do. Returning responsibility its nucleus, to the individual, may be a scary concept for those accustomed to such a large “safety net”, but the renaissance that would follow a free and open market would cast away any shadows of doubt.
Will people take care of themselves if the government doesn’t? According to Adrian LeBlanc, author of Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and the Coming of Age in the Bronx, when Clinton rolled back welfare in the late 1990’s, most of the women receiving government subsidies went back to work and began to provide for their families again (LeBlanc, 2003). Sure, the transition may be hard since generations have been raised living this way, but our responsibility as fellow citizens of the world is to voluntarily work together to ensure those unable to care for themselves have care. We should also ensure that our children are raised as responsible self reliant individuals who also look out for the well being of others.
This means we are responsible for rolling back the intrusive government programs that are not working and creating new systems that operate on a peaceful voluntary basis. In New Hampshire the state legislature recently introduced legislation to remove professional licencing for industries such as cosmetology. This effort was promoted in part by unlicensed hair stylists who did not want to face jail-time because they could not afford the $12,000 for state mandated cosmetology school (Love, 2011). If this law passes, it will remove the licensing requirements for 144 occupations in New Hampshire, creating the only state in the nation where all you need to become a barber is a pair of scissors and a steady hand. This sort of citizen lead effort is an example of how we can work together to level the playing field and create equal access to income opportunities.
Once we have removed the barriers to labor and housing we must lead by example and not only provide for ourselves, but teach others how empowering it is to do so on your own terms. We must invest our time and energy in lifting up those who have been damaged the worst by these state intrusions into our lives.
Consequence of Inaction
The consequence of inaction is the perpetual ghetto. The consequence of inaction is dependency on the failing government, conditions of squalor, rampant drug abuse, the prevalence of gangs, and illness around every corner. After many years of closely studying and interacting with the community in the South Bronx, Kozol concluded, “So long as there are ghetto neighborhoods and ghetto hospitals and ghetto schools, I am convinced there will be ghetto desperation, ghetto violence, and ghetto fear because a ghetto is itself and evil and unnatural construction” (Kozol, 1995)
Johnson, Charles (2007) Scratching By
Kozol, J. (1995). Amazing grace. New York: Crown Publishers INC.
LeBlanc, A. N. (2003). Random family, love, drugs, trouble, and coming of age in the bronx. Scribner Book Company.
Love, Norma. (2011, December 18). Boston.com. Retrieved from
National Coalition for the Homeless. (2010, March). Tent cities in america a pacific coast report.
Retrieved from http://nationalhomeless.org/publications/Tent Cities Report FINAL 3-4-10.pdf