Sunday, September 2, 2012

Down and Out in America

Children from the Martinique Hotel by Matt from here

"Success within the lives of those I’ve known for all these years is as much a matter of their inward growth—in decency, in character—as of their outward victories. And, at the end, uncertainties remain..." Jonathan Kozol, (Kindle Locations 2001-2002).


"History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." I've often puzzled over that line that Joyce penned--until today.


It is the stories Jonathan Kozol tells that makes each and every work by him stay with me and well after I finish the actual reading reveal ways of seeing that I almost knew before. I finished reading Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children and am feeling anger, sadness, impotence, and gross incompetence.  The history of poor children living in Manhattan and then later in the South Bronx that Kozol writes about occurs while I am an adult.  This is a history and yet it is not one from a distant time.  It is from the time I have lived.  As such, I feel an ownership that comes alongside such neglect.

Neither geography nor time can distance us from what happened and failed to happen in the lives of the children and families Kozol chronicles.  In the end of the 1980s while children were living at the Martinique Hotel I was living just across the river, falling in love, teaching, traveling, and beginning a doctorate at an uptown university.  The distance between that life and the one being forged at the Martinique gives me pause.

What Kozol describes feels like a nightmare--a distance that those there could not claim.


We spend an inordinate amount of time discussing education in the United States and very little time, if any, discussing the economic injustices that give rise to poverty and make it feel inevitable.   Since the rise of right-wing conservatism that was fully ushered in via Ronald Reagan the conversation about shared sacrifice and equity which framed the conversations coming out of the 60s and 70s have been silenced so that we might argue about family values, education, marriage, health care, abortion while ignoring those among us who are forced to do without even the basics.


In 1988, Reagan when asked about U.S. homelessness said this:
“Well, it’s been so exaggerated. Millions, there aren’t millions. Real research reveals probably 300,000 or less, nationwide. And a lot of those are the type of people that have made that choice. For example, more than 40% of them are retarded, mentally deficient people, that is the result of the ACLU. Look at the girl in NY who went to court after Koch had ordered her to get off the street and be put in a shelter. She went to court and actually fought, under her Constitutional rights, to go on living in that cardboard box on the street.“ (from here). 

This is the same man for whom airports, libraries, and other monuments have been built to honor.  I didn't see it then and I certainly don't understand it now.  The meanness of Reagan's rhetoric continues today and is stunningly unapologetic as it finds voice in conservatives who claim to love. I don't doubt they do love, just that such love is awful stingy.  Just consider how Mitt Romney can say this without hesitation even as he tries to gain your confidence in the way of a vote:

“I’m in this race because I care about Americans. I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it." (from here). 


If poverty is in need of repair?  As an artist, I have been making images of people down and out in America for the last few years. Here's one look:

Work Cited
Kozol, Jonathan (2012-08-28). Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America, Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.


  1. ... " ways of seeing that I almost knew before."

  2. I have heard the phrase "scholar-activist." You are a scholar-photographer-activist. Powerful work, which I hope is widely viewed.

    1. Honored you think so. Yes, I hope it does get some looks and that leads people to act.

  3. What can we do? How should we act? Where is our power? I'm thinking about these questions as I agree our country refuses to discuss the tough issues such as poverty, pollution and the pain and anquish caused by war. We spend most of the time on "easy issues," issues I describe as those that require no personal sacrifice and do not affect your life such as an old man spending all his time committed to issues related to abortion--an issue that will not require a personal sacrifice for him. Looking forward to your response.

    1. Maureen, I think you raise an important observation: to what end do the issues we attend to have direct connections to our lives, our actions? Making commitments to action require actionable items. There's an odd comfort to standing still and arguing about that which we can do nothing about or that which has no real interest in our daily lives allows this stand still to happen and look less obvious.

      Something to consider.

  4. Powerful, thoughtful photo essay and accompanying thoughts. It is easier to not look than to look and own responsibility for what and who we have become - a people of platitudes, placards and sound bites. Thank you for this.

    1. Thank you Laurie. I followed your link to your blog and was wowed by your recent post. I posted a response there. Thanks.

  5. Mary Ann, if government welfare programs worked to lift people out of poverty, then why is there still the same amount? Why do a large number of people do well and some don't? It all has to do with the choices we make in life. Some born in terrible conditions with little freedom, chose to do what it took to get out of it and become successful by their own standards.

    Paying taxes so that government welfare programs can keep people in poverty is the true injustice. It's not compassion, it's not charity. True charity and compassion comes from helping people yourself with your own time and money. With all of Obama's millions, why couldn't he help his step-brother in Kenya? Or help out his other illegal relatives in NY?

    I'm sorry but saying that being compassionate with other people's money is nothing more than theft. We should let people give on their own accord, and reap the rewards in knowing the people they helped.

    1. Citizen Journalist: While I agree that the government doesn't own the responsibility for fairness, I do believe that it owns the responsibility for some minimum level of security--as it does in virtually all other industrialized countries. (This position, by the way, is historically a Republican position until the Southern split started shifting the conservative ideology.)

      It often seems that such arguments assume that the goal is for everyone to have the same amount of everything--there may be some who agree with that, but I doubt it's a mainstream opinion: work ethic is part of our culture. (Besides, if we were all the same I imagine it would be some Lathe Of Heaven-style hell--or, worse, intensely boring and unmotivating.)

      I also dispute the concept of "other people's money." The argument that everything you or I earn belongs to us is simply false. We live as part of a social contract in which we agree that a government provides all of us with certain things: roads, bridges, schools, technological research, space exploration, police, fire fighters, search-and-rescue operations, military protection... I could go on and on. Our part of that contract is to pay for it and to abide by the rules that make it possible. The "our money" argument is truly only one of perception. Imagine if all taxes were business taxes and your salary was 20% less than it is today, but you had nothing taken from your paycheck at all. Then we'd be talking about taking "their" money (or "corporate" money) rather than "other people's money." Either way--the social contract requires payment.

    2. Wow, so much to respond to given your comments. Poverty in the US is not a party matter, but rather a human matter and we need to understand that. It is naive to believe that there is not an interconnectedness between wealth and how it is garnered and maintained and increased poverty and the decreasing middle class. Poverty in the US is not a matter of one's bad luck. It is engineered and maintained and of course extends well beyond the US borders. Consider this post I wrote last year, So What's a Crime? Thinking about Protesters & Market Speculators ( Making billions at the expense of the hungry is a crime. Market speculators controlling the cost of food in order to make money while other dies is wrong. These are criminals. We ought not call it anything softer.