Sunday, July 13, 2014

Camden: Improving the quality of life for 'other people'

Taking a break from NJ State BOE testimony to bring you an update on one of the poorest, most dangerous cities in the country: Camden. And borrowing some of the title from a Camden educator's blog post last week (more below).

While my little graphic may be snarky, the daily reality that many Camden residents face is anything but. A quick Google search brings up volumes about the decades-long plight of Camden and her residents. But as someone who grew up in a pretty toxic environment, I know that often times a healthy dose of Gallows Humor is what gets me through difficult times. 

This video, however is no laughing matter. It's staggeringly, brutally, innocently and blatantly honest. It's what just about every child in that city faces every day, and is the very definition of sin. Many don't have the resilience of this young man.  
More from him later.

Camden in the news

Several recent events have put the city at the center of law makers, news media and civil rights advocates, and prompted some excellent reporting by some of NJ's finest education policy bloggers:

  1. Gov. Christie vetoed a budget provision that would have increased the per household amount that food stamp recipients now receive because 'other people' outside NJ might find that more appealing in a presidential candidate. 
  2. Writing for Anthony Cody's Ed Week blog, Living in Dialogue, Julia Sass-Rubin of Save Our Schools NJ criticized the recent late-night shenanigans by some Trenton legislators that effectively re-wrote portions of the NJ Charter School law so that previously out-of-compliance charter chains, Mastery and Uncommon Schools, would now be in compliance, and the 'other people' who run them would be able to educate profit from Camden's children.
  3. State officials gave another big corporate tax break to a politically connected company that will yet again bring very few jobs to Camden, but will benefit 'other people'
  4. Camden educator Keith Eric Benson guest posted over at the EduShyster blog (cross-post at Blue Jersey) about the new taxpayer-funded Philadelphia 76ers practice facility being built in Camden that will provide the city with a handful of seasonal, low-paying jobs and not much else. Keith makes the salient point that this facility will, like so many other renewal projects, benefit 'other people'
  5. No discussion of education policy and child poverty would be complete without commentary from Jersey's own Jersey Jazzman. Along with Julia's piece in Ed Week and her response to reformer Laura Waters, they deliver a 1-2 knockout punch to the 'other people' pushing the 'reform' agenda in Camden's schools .
These issues are not separate. They are all intertwined in a noose that has tightened around the city's neck for decades.

Camden poverty by the numbers

Any discussion of Camden must include statistics on poverty. Depending on which statistics you read, Camden is the poorest and most dangerous city in the country. If you don't believe my words, look at the numbers:

The crisis is beyond comprehension, especially in one of the wealthiest states in the US, and children are the worst victims. If Camden were a third world country, rock stars and George Clooney would be lining up to host a benefit relief concert. The USDA has designated it as one of the top 10 worst 'food deserts' in the country. A food desert is described as:

An area without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food. That means there isn't a supermarket within a mile.
These are usually low-income areas, dominated by minorities. In fact, just 8 percent of African Americans live in a census tract with a supermarket.
The effects of food deserts are devastating: they contribute to obesity and other diet-related illnesses, they force families living in these areas to use valuable time traveling to neighboring areas, and they usually lack the resources to improve their situation.

Associated Press

A food oasis... kinda, sorta

So, when Christie vetoes a budget item that will help put food on the tables of NJ's poor, it's a BFD in Camden. (See New Jersey Working Families Alliance for more on how to help.) At this time last year the city had one supermarket —a PathMark—that served the needs of 77,000 people, so hopes were high when Mayor Dana Redd announced that construction was to start on the first new supermarket in 30 years. But as is the case in Camden's long, slow climb out of poverty, it turned into a '2-steps-forward; 1-step-back' solution as the PathMark closed the following month. And the location of this new store has many scratching their heads because even though it will bring hundreds of jobs to the area, it's not easily accessible by foot or bike. Instead, it's on a main route that greatly benefits 'other people': commuters from Philadelphia.
"Admiral Wilson Boulevard is not pedestrian friendly and it's not bike friendly," said Ari Rosenberg, an urban farmer and educator at the Center for Environmental Transformation, located in the southernmost Camden neighborhood of Waterfront South. "If I were going to take (public transportation) I'd have to take two buses. It would take half an hour and I'd have to walk five minutes from the closest bus to the store." 
"That ShopRite is going to be 2.1 miles from my house. I'd have to drive. And it's got to be drivers – especially commuters – they're targeting. Look at where it is," said Carl Chandler, a car-owning homeowner in the middle-class Cooper-Grant neighborhood.

Laws of physics... kinda, sorta

For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. 
That's Newton's third law of motion. So, if logic and reason continue (hey, work with me on this), this should absolutely make sense:
This stuff isn’t easy to do. But nor should it be easy for us to continue to ignore these children. Let’s be honest. That’s what we have done. We can rationalize as much as we want. We have ignored their futures. And today is a symbol of the beginning of the end of that conduct.

"Wait! Wait! Don't tell me", you say. "That's Gov. Christie announcing the construction of four new supermarkets in Camden!" 


"New housing?"


"Repairing dilapidated school buildings?"

No. That was Gov. Christie announcing that the state was taking over the Camden public school system because, you know, education professionals are responsible for this...

 and this...

and this... 
Credit: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
 and don't forget this...


Experienced superintendent... kinda, sorta

So, instead of doing everything possible to ensure that Camdeners have access to quality food and shelter, schools that are accessible to every child, and well-paying jobs, he blames education for the savage blight, takes control of the district, hires a still wet-behind-the-ears superintendent with so little education experience that they also have to hire a mentor superintendent to teach him how to do his job, and pays him a boatload of money so that he can live here...


instead of here...

'Other people' run Camden's schools. 'Other people' don't have to see what Camden's children go home to every day because 'other people' don't live where real Camdeners live. 'Other people' can continue to get huge tax breaks to set up shop in Camden without any real obligation to give back to the city. Are ya catchin' my drift?

This might be a good time for an intermission. Don't know about you but this gal's gotta stretch for a few minutes. For your viewing pleasure:

Total amount of time actively teaching students: 21 months. 

And... we're back!

Camden's Waterfront vs. Camden's Neighborhoods: The Boardwalk vs. Mediterranean Ave.

So, the Christie administration just gave a massive tax break to a politically connected company that will contribute next to nothing to the local economy, but the 'other people' who own it will walk away with a nice chunk of change:
Under the terms of the award, Holtec will create 235 new full-time positions and relocate 160 existing jobs from other parts of the state to Camden. Once those workers are in place, the firm will reap subsidies of $26 million a year for 10 years
In exchange, New Jersey will realize $155,520 in net economic benefits over 35 years, the authority estimated. Under the terms of the agreement, however, the company is required to stay at the Camden location for only 15 years
Liberals and conservatives alike criticized the $260 million tax break for a politically connected firm at a time when New Jersey is strapped for tax revenue to pay for its schools, hospitals, property tax rebates and pension obligations.
"This is just another form of crony capitalism, and it needs to end," state Sen. Michael Doherty (R-Warren), one of the state's most conservative lawmakers, said. "The more we do of this, the worse the economy gets in the state of New Jersey."
(emphasis mine) 

I don't always agree with Sen. Doherty—especially on education funding—but I do here. This development will do absolutely nothing for the people of Camden other than give them the appearance that something is being done. Meanwhile 'other people' take the money and run when their time's up. 

NJ Spotlight sums it up perfectly:
Holtec's CEO, Krishna Singh, was George Norcross’s partner when he owned The Inquirer, and Norcross sits on Holtec’s board of directors. The company is expected to create 235 new jobs in Camden, but there's no guarantee Camden residents will get those positions. 

The waterfront is filled with similarly-gleaming investments that were intended to revitalize the economy here — an aquarium, a battleship museum, a minor-league ballpark — but so far none of them has had a transformative effect, and few jobs for city residents have been created. All make so-called PILOTs — Payments In Lieu of Taxes. None of that money goes to the Camden school district, which relies on the state for almost all its funding. 

Other budget cuts have negatively affected Camden’s poor even as Christie argues that he is trying to help them. He eliminated the Earned Income Tax Credit for the working poor. He rolled back benefits for businesses in cities’ Urban Enterprise Zones. And he slowed the school construction program, so century-old buildings in Camden continue to fall apart.
(emphasis mine) 

More from the piece:
Since Gov. Chris Christie took office in 2010, New Jersey has distributed more than $4 billion in tax breaks — far more than under any previous governor — yet private-sector job growth has been one of the slowest of all 50 states, according to federal data.

New Jersey Policy Perspective, a liberal research organization, said the tax break awarded to Holtec was one of the largest ever bestowed in the United States. The state is paying $658,228 for each job — "a sky-high number that has never been seen before in New Jersey and is even far higher than the average per-job cost of the largest 'megadeals' across the country," Jon Whiten, Policy Perspective's deputy director, said.

Doherty said the real cost was even higher, since 160 of the jobs already existed in the state."It looks like New Jersey is paying over $1 million for each new job that's being created, and this is a disturbing trend," he said.
(emphasis mine) 


Christie needs urban support to win in 2016, and what better place to start garnering it than his home state? Plus, George Norcross is a big ally, so it's a safe haven when the going gets tough. But in a city that gave 97% of its votes to Obama in 2012, he clearly has his work cut out for him. It's going to take a lot more than a sprinkling of shiny new waterfront playthings to make people realize he's in it for them.

So while Christie may be opening the floodgates for 'other people' to build things like this...

and this...

he still needs the votes of people who live like this...

and this...

And I don't think that's going to happen too easily. As the young man in the video at the beginning of this post said, 
"Take my hand and walk with me. Walk my streets to school. Will your bombs save me? If you want to defend me, come and live on my block." 
There is no war on poverty, but there is a war on the poor.