Since 1967, Johnathan Kozol has written books about the less fortunate in American society. His acclaimed books include Death at an Early Age (1967), Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools (1991) and Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation (1995). Like his other works, and Amazing Grace takes both society and government to task for allowing children to grow up in deplorable conditions.
Kozol takes his reader to the South Bronx, New York. This borough continues to be one of the biggest, poorest, and most segregated cities in the nation. People in the South Bronx live in what most of us would consider to be un-livable conditions. Would you consider letting your children play in parks where rusty, toxic chemical containers had been dumped? How about your home backing up to a medical waste incinerator? Or the apartments near a garbage dump? Do your children pass drug dealers and prostitutes as they walk home from school? Probably not. But these conditions, and more, are the norm for residents here. For example, inadequate sanitation procedures also led to increased numbers of rats. These vermin, often disease-carriers, have become so numerous that they have overrun certain buildings and spaces.
When it comes to spending of construction dollars, that money is not spent on constructing new primary schools or improving existing structures; instead, the funds typically go to enlarging or building reform schools or expanding prison. A lack of jobs in the area has made many adults idle and useless; many turn to drugs and crime. Making matters worse, the city, not wanting visitors who spend money to be put off by the large homeless population in New York City and other tony locations, began moving the homeless to the South Bronx; already crowded and unsanitary conditions immediately became exponentially worse. And even though the police moved the homeless to the South Bronx, they did not increase police protection at all. Therefore, crime rates, already high, went even higher.
Ultimately, what makes Kozol’s work so compelling and enduring is that he puts individual faces to the mass human suffering, and in doing so, he is able to dispel many stereotypes about the poor. For example, the author introduces us to a woman named Alice Washington. Alice is a three-time cancer survivor who became infected with the AIDS virus by her former husband. She lives in squalor, but the convoluted red tape of the welfare system has left her without financial assistance. However, despite her very real problems, Kozol shows us Alice’s supreme dignity, and her deserving of respect and kindness. Alice possesses a sense of “nobility” that eludes those who are far better off than she.
We also meet Alice’s son, David, who incessantly cares for, and worries about, his mother. Despite his burden, David finishes high school and earns a scholarship to high school, a feat that flies in the face of many stereotypical notions about the poor. Deeply religious and incredibly observant, David is able to see the “log” in the eye of those who see “specks” in another. (From Matthew 7:5: You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye.)
The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and the children of the poor suffer the most. The children are innocent and defenseless; they want to lead normal lives like the children of the affluent do. They have the same hopes and dreams, but they grow up in a trap of poverty. They see the adults around them dehumanized by the better off, who claim the poor are criminals, thugs, and “takers” who neither give, nor want to give back to society.
Kozol also talks extensively with the people who run the “Covenant House,” a shelter for homeless teens, founded in the late 1960s. He speaks with clergy who help the poor, who often live in crime-ridden housing projects and with the parents of children who attend low-performing and inadequately-funded schools. These people, who live and work in the South Bronx, tell Kozol about the many afflictions of their flock, from depression, to hunger, to trauma, and more. He hears stories about the prevalence of asthma and the lack of treatment for the uninsured. He learns of the gun deaths in the under-policed neighborhoods and deaths that occur from neglect. People have died from cold in poorly heated rooms. They have died from improperly functioning elevators.
Kozol also stresses the problem of segregation. Even though the Supreme Court ended school segregation in 1959 (Brown v. Board of Education), children of the South Bronx endure what can only be described as a “social quarantine.” Living and going to school in these environments is soul-crushing for children. Kozol compares schools in the South Bronx to those in affluent New York so the contrast can be clear and unmistakable. He blames “class warfare” that the government has encouraged and enabled. Just as Kozol puts faces to individuals in poverty, so too does he identify politicians he feels are to blame for the deplorable conditions of the South Bronx. He identifies former mayor Rudolph Juliani, whose draconian cutbacks to the city’s budget further hurt the already struggling programs for young people and programs for drug and alcohol rehabilitation. The cuts also affected sanitation budgets, leading to even more squalid conditions. Additionally, the layoffs Juliani imposed led to job losses for thousands of social service workers, the majority of whom were minorities. After school programs were shut down and the mayor told these young people that they would just have to “to take advantage of what is out there.” The suggestion was even made that people who receive welfare should be made to clean up the city and wear uniforms while doing so. He argues that New York is engaging in a deliberate “ghettoization” and urges everyone, both conservative and liberal, to acknowledge what is happening and to take action to change it, even if it means the well-to-do might have to give up a little of their boon to help their fellow man.
Amazing Grace takes readers to the South Bronx, one of the largest and poorest racially segregated areas in the United States in one of the nation’s poorest congressional districts. Abysmal living conditions are the norm—a medical waste incinerator, garbage dumps, children’s parks dotted with empty rusted toxic containers. The city has begun relocating more homeless persons into a neighborhood already lacking adequate hospitals, schools, and public services. Here the construction of reform schools and prisons takes precedence over the establishment of needed primary and secondary schools. Drugs and prostitution overrun neighborhoods without adequate police protection. Steady reductions in the numbers of rat and housing inspectors have allowed monstrous rats to overrun entire areas. Ultimately, the lack of jobs condemns many adults to uselessness and poverty.
More can be found in the links. However, I highly recommend you also read the book. Summaries are great for supplementing reading but are no substitute.