Notes on the social crisis in America

Homeless epidemic in Camden, New Jersey


HomelessThe economically devastated city of Camden, New Jersey, has confronted a rise in copper thefts from its lighting system, resulting in dark and more crime-prone blocks. City officials have blamed drug-addicted homeless residents who may be desperate enough to risk their lives to get a few dollars in cash from scrapyards.


Once a vibrant manufacturing center, Camden is now mired in an unemployment crisis and poverty. More than half of residents live in poverty; per capita income stands at less than $12,000.


The city now has the highest rate of violent crime in the nation. In January, half of the municipal police force was cut.


Camden has long had a large homeless population living under bridges and in wooded areas. One in every 24 residents of the city are homeless—over 3,000—a rate far higher than nearby Philadelphia and among the highest ratios in the nation.


In May 2010, the city fenced off public land where a large tent city, known as Transitional Park, had developed, forcing residents to relocate. Although dwellings consisted of little more than tarps and plywood scraps, the encampment had a long waiting list of people waiting to get an open tent.


Homeless residents have built several other camps around Camden since then. Business and civic leaders are calling for their eviction from city limits to boost Camden’s $125,000 campaign advertising the area as a good place for businesses to relocate.


If the evictions go forward, many of the homeless will likely risk living in some of the many badly deteriorated buildings standing empty throughout the city. Others may be given one-way bus tickets to cities where shelters could take them in.


Thousands of jobseekers line up in Atlanta, Georgia


An increasingly common phenomenon in cities across the US is the mass line-up outside of “jobs fairs”. Such an event in Atlanta, Georgia, drew an estimated 5,000 residents who waited all night outside of the Atlanta Technical College in business suits and heels in hopes of meeting employers. The crowd was so large that traffic ground to a halt in the city’s southwest side.


The jobs fair was part of a series sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus intended to boost support for the Democratic Party in the run-up to the 2012 elections, particularly among minorities and the poor who have been buffeted by the economic crisis. Three days before the Atlanta event, over 5,000 Detroit-area jobseekers turned out to a jobs fair where a handful of employers took resumes but conducted no interviews.


“My feet are really killing me, and this line is really long,” Daisy Kennard told local ABC News affiliate Channel 2. “But I’m willing to stay in this line no matter what.”


“You got a child, you got kids, you got bills,” said Derric Clayton, a father of three who lost his job as a security guard in May. “You’ve got to stay somewhere. You don’t want to be homeless.”


Several people collapsed from the heat. Twenty people were treated for heat exhaustion after standing in line for hours. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution described frustration and despair among those waiting. “The crowds, lines and heat took their toll on people in line, both mentally and physically.”


Walter Character, who was laid off July 8, told the paper he had heard about the event on the news but that he and many others did not know they were supposed to register beforehand. “You have to preregister,” he said. “The line is wrapped around the building and these people may not even get in to see anyone.”


A separate jobs fair across town drew another 1,000 residents the same day.


Nevada poor impacted by budget cuts


Nevada has stripped funding for many already bare-bones programs serving the poorest families. Children, the disabled, and the elderly, will bear the most hardship.


An estimated 11,000 people will be denied help with utility bills, even as the number of people in need of state aid rises. Those who do receive help will be given far less. As of July 1, average annual assistance was cut from $860 to $500.


Parents returning to college will no longer be eligible for state aid to help with child care costs. “We don’t have enough money to go around,” a Welfare division representative told the Nevada Sun August 19. “We have to keep the money for people who need to feed their families, not go to school right now.”


State funding for Kinship Care, a program that provided financial assistance to poor families caring for relatives who would otherwise end up in foster care, will be cut by 25 percent beginning September 1. Assistance will decline to $400 per month. This amount is far from adequate for grandparents living on meager fixed incomes who frequently take on the responsibility of rearing grandchildren.


“We still do not understand all of the cuts heading our way,” Karen Taycher, director of school advocacy group Nevada Parents Encouraging Parents, commented to the Nevada Sun. The organization has already received calls from parents who have seen services for their disabled children eliminated.


Rural South Dakota schools move to four-day week


The Irene-Wakonda School District has implemented a four-day school week due to budget cuts. Like rural districts throughout the country, the Irene-Wakonda system has been chronically underfunded. Nationwide, more than 120 school districts now operate on four-day weeks.


In South Dakota, one in four districts are moving to abbreviate their schedules after a 6.6 percent cut in state public education funding. South Dakota already ranks 44th in state per-pupil spending. According to the Associated School Boards of South Dakota, another $233 million a year is required to adequately fund schools.


“It got down to monetary reasons more than anything else,” Superintendent Larry Johnke explained to the Associated Press, adding that the $50,000 saved in transportation, food, payroll, and operations costs will be shifted to a vocational education program that was due to be eliminated.


Parents have expressed concern over the impact the shortened school week will have on the quality of education. Johnke said that the school days will be lengthened by half an hour, and lunch, recess, and physical education times will all be shortened.


Illinois prison conditions deteriorate


With 49,000 inmates in August, the Illinois prison system has reached 147 percent of its rated capacity. The prison population has grown by 4,000 since Democratic Governor Pat Quinn cancelled an early release program last year.


In response, the state has announced it is changing the way it calculates capacity. Instead of calculating capacity by the number of cells, officials will measure the number of prisoners the system can hold by how many beds it can fit into its facilities. This raises the maximum capacity from 33,373 to 51,000, and effectively allows prison administrators to crowd as many bunks into cells as needed.


Overcrowding aggravates violence, mental illness, the spread of disease, unsanitary conditions, and other inhumane conditions.


At Vandalia Correctional Center, which was rated at 192 percent over capacity, hundreds of the 1,700 inmates are housed in basement dormitories with water leaks and insufficient electricity. Investigators visiting the prison found inmates struggling to get rid of stagnant, fetid water pooling in the floors of their cells. Many inmates have been sickened by noxious mold and bitten by spiders.


In a letter to the Herald Review published August 12, a Vandalia inmate explained, “Once the water gets high enough, they move inmates into the gymnasium onto the floor. They vacuum the water up, then move the inmates back into that contaminated, makeshift dormitory that was built in 1920.”


Such conditions are widespread. At Stateville, inmates are made to sleep in hallways and in common rooms. In Dixon, overcrowding has left the facility with no single rooms available for dangerous prisoners. Inmates throughout the system have few educational resources or rehabilitative treatment.