What are we learning from the recent census?
A headline in this Thursday’s Westchester County Journal News proclaims "Census: Density in Pockets." Well, duh. Just look around New York and you'll see high-rises and low-rises that house low-income families whose housing is subsidized by "Section 8" of the welfare code, which ties rents to a percentage of income. The more you earn, the more you pay. Conversely, if you don't earn anything, you'll pay almost nothing. I have a friend who pays $117 for a one-bedroom apartment on a tree-lined street in North Yonkers.
She's one of the lucky ones. I have other friends who live in a building in South Yonkers where a different drug king controls each floor. (That's how lucrative the drug trade is in these areas. After all, it's money off the books. It won't affect the rent.) Buildings are subdivided and subdivided again to provide housing for the burgeoning population of welfare recipients in these dense "pockets."
Another friend of mine teaches junior high in the Bronx. Recently she gave her students a typical assignment: what do you want to be when you grow up? One bright young seventh-grader wrote glowingly about his desire to go to college and become a lawyer. "I'll carry a briefcase to work and wear a charcoal gray suit," he wrote. "I'll drive a BMW and I'll help people with their problems." My friend cheered his enthusiasm as she read his dream. Then she reached his final paragraph: "But if I make too much money, I'll lose my benefits," he concluded. "Maybe I shouldn't go to college after all."
What a chilling message these children are learning from their parents. I hear it too, all the time. "I can't get a job. I'll lose my Medicaid." "I can't get a job. My rent will go up." So parents teach their children how to use the system — how to get on the Section 8 rolls, how to get more food stamps, how to get more welfare. Often for a girl, that means having babies outside of marriage. Children learn how to find jobs that are off the books, income that can go unreported. Their parents don't have the courage to say, "Get out of here! Go to college and fly far away!"
This is a Reflection full of storytelling, so I'm going to tell you one more story. My friend Kelly was a single welfare mom rearing two children, with another one on the way. She was living in a tiny, grungy apartment on one of the worst streets in Yonkers. When the father of the new baby left instead of marrying her, she knew she had to change her life. So she reached out for a different safety net from Section 8 or WIC (aid to Women, Infants, and Children) or Medicaid: she called her parents. Then she moved across the country to Sacramento, where her two older boys are now enrolled in better schools with better classmates. Her mother joyfully volunteered to take care of the baby while Kelly attended school herself. This month Kelly will graduate and become a dental hygienist. By the end of the summer she will be moving into her own apartment. I am so proud of her!
Government welfare always begins with good intentions. No one wants to see young mothers abandoned on the streets. No one wants to see children go hungry or uneducated. But these "pockets" of dense population are not what anyone intended. They are sad places, full of broken dreams and lost courage.
The War on Poverty was supposed to end this mess. It has only gotten worse, as any free marketeer could have predicted. Government needs to get out of the way and stop competing with free market housing, so that more people like Kelly can find the courage to leave the grungy pockets of Section 8 and move into wider, roomier pockets somewhere else — anywhere else! — with better schools, better opportunities, and a better way of life.