As Campaign '96 heats up, we find the candidates scrambling to convince voters that they're "tough on crime" and lean and mean when it comes to social programs. Refueling the anti-entitlement message of their Contract on America, conservatives seem determined to outdo one another in Scrooge-like parsimony, scapegoating welfare recipients and the poor as the cause of every social blight.
Into this vein of smug rhetoric, Amazing Grace, Jonathan Kozol's exposé of life in the South Bronx, injects a desperately needed dose of reality. Based on a year Kozol spent interviewing the poorest of New York's poor, the book unveils the truth about squalid living conditions, gutted educational facilities, crime, disease, and pandemic depression that plague these neighborhoods where the city effectively conceals its underclass, keeping them out of sight and out of mind. Kozol is no stranger to poverty and discrimination: his first book, Death at an Early Age, which chronicled his work as a civil-rights activist and teacher of black fourth-graders in a segregated Boston school, won the National Book Award in 1968. Since then he has continued to track the country's social problems, with such offerings as Illiterate America and Rachel and Her Children: Homeless Families in America. In 1988, with Savage Inequalities, he returned to the issue of public education, contending that de facto segregation skews public-school demographics as severely as official segregation did more than 30 years ago.
Amazing Grace broadens this argument, asking how slums like the South Bronx could exist after three decades of affirmative action and "consciousness-raising" about racial injustice. He cites convincing statistics on culturally biased school-entrance exams and employment cutbacks that target the urban working class. Forced to turn to the state for assistance, minority families find themselves in a dead-end spiral that lands them permanently in the ghetto. "Subsidized housing" in the South Bronx invariably means a rat-infested tenement straight out of Dickens's London, where the elderly freeze and children plunge to their deaths in elevator shafts. Venturing into the street could mean death by a stray bullet; jobs, for those lucky enough to find them, pay subsistence wages at best. AIDS has become a commonplace killer of adults and children alike: terminally ill patients at Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx often lie for days on stretchers in the corridors, waiting for empty beds. When they dare to present their Medicaid cards at reputable hospitals like Mount Sinai, most of these people are flatly turned away.
What distinguishes Kozol's writing is that, though he's conversant with statistics, he doesn't confine himself to a "comfort zone" built on numbers and cold sociological parlance. Instead, he records in their own words the South Bronx residents' daily struggles, along with their surprising show of faith and hope. Through his compassionate lens, we witness AIDS patient Alice Wasngry struggling to get out of bed in the morning.
This small corner of America remains unchanged by the supply-side, voodoo economics that Reagan promised would transform the South Bronx into a model of urban economic development when he used it as a backdrop for a photo-op in the early '80s. Kozol's glimpses of the spiritual strength of the poor amplify his attacks on the unforgivable wrongs our society has heaped on them -- the most draconian moralist couldn't argue that the children in this book had done anything to deserve their harsh fate. Children more than anyone, he points out, have internalized the blatant message of our "new barbarism"; even the youngest understand that they are unwelcome outside their own neighborhood. Yet they remain uncannily generous and trusting. When Kozol asks eight-year-old Cliffie why he gave his pizza -- a rare treat -- to a homeless man, the child replies, "God told us, `Share!' " What is it, Kozol questions, that enables these children to pray, and "when they pray, what do they say to God?"
As politicos rant on about "moral decline" among the poor, condescendingly charging that welfare entitlements "reward bad behavior" and "discourage independence," Kozol leads us back to first principles. He doesn't deny that widespread drug addiction and crime haunt the South Bronx, or imply that its residents are beyond reproach. But he does demonstrate that self-medication, hunger, fear, unemployment, and poor education in urban ghettos are mere symptoms of complex, entrenched social ills for which we all bear moral responsibility. To walk into the South Bronx and command the destitute to "Just get a job!" would be, he shows, akin to "walking into the intensive-care ward in a hospital and saying, `Rise!' "