Like Marie Antoinette entertaining at Versailles, our state policymakers continue to debate and propose a myriad of new laws and regulations that, as usual, address rather marginal issues. Smoking on the beach? Sure, Trenton’s debating on it. Animal cruelty? We’ve got loads of proposed bills on that one. Internet decency and bullying? Absolutely…the Garden State’s reps are all over that. But in the midst of all of this legislative excellence came really big news. News, of course, that after its initial reporting was tucked away, forgotten, marginalized, even by a so-called “Progressive” Democratic majority in the Legislature.
The shocking informationemerged earlier this month from the yearly “Kids Count” report of the highly respected Advocates for Children of New Jersey. The raw number, one that is hard to hide, is shameful and highly indicative of our state’s inexorable slide into a Third World status. One third of New Jersey’s Children – over 600,000 – are living in a de facto state of poverty. And more than half of those children – some 300,000 – are living in a state of extreme poverty.
We’re not talking about adults here. We’re not examining the numbers of New Jerseyans who, in fine right-wing fashion, are expected to resolve their own poverty through the magic of full-time employment. We are talking about kids. Remember them? They are the people that we, as a state, are collectively responsible for. No, this isn’t a socialistic jibe. I’m not proposing a Communist nirvana. I’m simply stating that the children of our state – well over a half million of them – are in desperate crisis.
Six Hundred Thousand. The number needs to be fleshed out. What does 600,000 look like? Try imagining a sold out Yankee stadium. Then stretch that thought to embrace 10 or 11 of them, all filled to capacity, with every seat, from the prime locales along the first base line to the seats in the distant rafters, occupied by a child. And all kids, nothing but kids. This isn’t Rio de Janiero, Mumbai, Damascus or some other Third World city. This is New Jersey, right now.
As an educator/blogger with a profound interest in our state’s fascinating history, I think this present level of poverty can only be described as Dickensian. Charles Dickens remains famous for his descriptive and touching stories concerning those who were desperately poor in an era of declining social mobility, insecure employment and a callous, uncaring state. From this mid-19th century British writer we get such classics as A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist and A Tale of Two Cities. His stories are filled with such terrors as urban starvation, brutal bosses and environmental degradation. With no meaningful social safety net to depend on, Dickens characters, regardless of class, were continually filled with the terror of sliding into hapless poverty. Doubtless to say 600,000 of our state’s children would probably fit into one or two of Dickens’ novels, and neatly at that.
Just like today, during Dickens’ era of the mid-1800’s, New Jersey had an abysmal record in caring for its poor. During that era there was a so-called ‘answer’ to poverty, and one that is still hinted at by politicians on the right today. It went by many names – the poorhouse, the workhouse, the almshouse. But in all its manifestations it was a ghastly place where the poor were forced to work for their bread and shelter, frequently under the supervision of municipally-appointed masters or bosses that amply represented a state that so despised the unfortunate. The workhouse was a destination of last resort – much like our homeless shelters of today. It was a place of utter humiliation.
One of the worst examples emerged out of Paterson in September 1867. The city’s so-called Almshouse was at the center of a well-publicized scandal involving its city-appointed Steward, a man by the name of Sigler.
During the course of the state’s investigation of him, Sigler’s victims testified to the horrific conditions of the almshouse. Current and former residents reported that Sigler had repeatedly abused those under his care. He routinely whipped people who were clearly mentally ill, banishing some of them to rooms where they subsequently froze to death. Additionally, many children were under his supervision placed there by the state and parents who could not afford to care for them. Kids who gave him trouble were routinely lashed by an instrument of torture that can only be described as a smaller version of a cat o’ nine tails. Bed-wetters and other young “troublemakers” were regularly deprived of meals and punished in other cruel ways.
It is interesting to note that even during his trial, the authorities made no move to separate Sigler from the residents, a fact that at least one publication stated was “for political reasons.” Sigler was under the protection of a higher authority.
Through my research I was unable to find out if Sigler was ultimately convicted and punished. But that’s not really the point. The point is that in this age of wireless Internet and email, our state, by allowing such a huge number of children – 600,000 – to remain and fester in poverty, is committing a moral outrage – a sin – equal in every way to Sigler’s.
Helping these kids is something that is going to take bold leadership, big ideas and yes, money. This problem is so huge that it makes the debate over abolishing reality transfer fees rather laughable. These kids need help, now. We’ve got to get them out of this modern-day version of the poorhouse.
Posted on: http://kurzglobe.blogspot.com/…