Thoughts about Poverty, Opportunity and Race

Recently, as part of my job, I read the book “How Children Succeed” by Paul Tough. Published just a couple of years ago, the book profiles various schools and supplemental programs that are teaching children and teens, especially those who live in poverty, to develop character traits that are correlated with success in school and later life.

Children living in poverty face considerable obstacles to success, including exposure to traumatic experiences, lack of mentors in their immediate family who have successful careers, and schools that are not equipped to prepare them for long-term success. One of the characteristics that is critical to whether students will succeed or fail is grit, the ability to persevere at long-term goals. Children growing up in poverty need extraordinary amounts of grit to graduate from high school and move into post-secondary education and jobs with decent wages. Recent research suggests that while some people are naturally “grittier” than others, it is possible to develop this ability.

Throughout “How Children Succeed,” Paul Tough makes multiple references to impoverished, primarily black, neighborhoods of Chicago, where high school graduation rates are extremely low, and where teachers, principals and various non-profits are working to turn that around. Tough also repeatedly mentions a book I have had on my shelf for years, but had never taken the time to read, until now, “There Are No Children Here” by Alex Kotlowitz.

Published in 1991, “There Are No Children Here,” is an intimate portrait of two brothers who live with their mother and six siblings in an apartment in the Henry Horner Homes, a complex of public housing high rises (a.k.a. “the projects”) in Chicago that in the 1980s was in deplorable condition after decades of severe neglect by the Chicago Housing Authority and was overrun by rival gangs. The book depicts several instances in which brothers Lafeyette and Pharoah Rivers, ages 12 and 9, and their family hunker down in the hallway of their apartment, fearful that they will be hit by stray bullets when gangs are battling outside.

Henry Horner no longer exists – the complex was eventually razed – and public housing in the United States has undergone improvements to make it safer, and more integrated with surrounding neighbors. For example, in many cities, low income high rises have been replaced by smaller apartment buildings and townhouses, and often “below market rate” units (the parlance used to describe low income housing) are intentionally built alongside market rate units to create more economic diversity and avoid segregating the poor away from everyone else.

However, the portrayal of poverty in the book remains relevant today, even if the specific details have changed over time. (I am not knowledgeable enough about the current state of public housing to comment on whether changes have led to significant improvements in safety and quality of life.)

During the year I spent in journalism school, “There Are No Children Here,” was often cited as an example of high quality urban reporting. Over a period of two years, Kotlowitz spent significant time getting to know the Rivers brothers, visiting with them at their home, in their neighborhood, and at school, as well as interviewing their family members, teachers and neighbors. Reading it now, I am amazed at the thoroughness of the reporting, and the elegance of the writing, which flows like a novel. I regret not reading the book sooner, but I also wonder if I would have appreciated the book in the same way all those years ago.

Over the several days I spent reading “There Are No Children Here,” I found myself mesmerized and depressed by the story of the Rivers brothers. They are depicted as bright boys who are determined to stay out of trouble, but they face constant obstacles in the form of despair that their family is stuck living in the war zone of the projects, the absenteeism of their father who is only in their lives sporadically, the trauma of friends and neighbors dying because of gang violence, and the pressure from friends to engage in petty crime or gang activity. More than 20 years after the book was published, a Google search reveals the brothers both are still living – overcoming their fears that they would die before reaching adulthood – but both have served time in prison and have struggled to escape the cycles of poverty and crime that were endemic in their childhood neighborhood.

“There Are No Children Here” doesn’t propose any grand solutions to the problems faced by children like the Rivers brothers. The purpose of the book, described in the preface, is to raise public consciousness of the reality of life in poverty.

As I read the book, I was fascinated to learn about these two boys who in real life are close to my age – one older and one younger – who had so much adversity to overcome at a time when I was living a comparatively idyllic childhood. The point of comparison was further driven home by a brief mention in the third chapter of the book that their maternal grandmother had been raised in my hometown of Charleston, WV, where her father was a part-time preacher at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, a name I recognized. It is entirely possible that I went to school with distant relatives of these boys.

It is eye-opening to realize that the poverty in our society that is so often not talked about is at most a few degrees of separation away from all of us – it is our neighbors who are struggling, whether we think of them that way or not. And yet, addressing poverty in a meaningful way is so elusive. “How Children Succeed” reveals that the challenges faced by the Rivers brothers remain rampant today, including multi-generational poverty, drug abuse, and urban violence. (On the bright side, the teen pregnancy rate, while still high, has improved significantly in the last 20 years.)

It seemed fitting that I read “There Are No Children Here” in the days leading up to Martin Luther King Jr. day. The book gave me an opportunity to reflect on the inequalities that remain in our society, and which are so institutionalized that we hardly notice them, as well as the very real progress that has been made over the years.

In the preface to his book Alex Kotlowitz relates that LaJoe, the mother of the Rivers brothers, when asked about childhood in the projects replied that, “There are no children here.” The degradations of poverty, the exposure to violence, the lack of hope, all served to rob children of their innocence. La Joe and Kotlowitz both hoped that publishing the boys’ story would lead to greater acknowledgement of the problems they faced, and would perhaps lead to changes for the better.

More than twenty years later, it is clear that whatever changes came about were too late to give Lafeyette and Pharoah the protections and opportunities they needed. However, it’s not too late for many others, with help from schools and supportive programs, to develop the traits needed to build a better future for themselves.




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Susan Jablow, Free-lance Writer

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