For the past 25 years, crusading author Jonathan Kozol has exposed the stark inequalities that persist in our nation and their devastating consequences — a subject that few others were talking about when he started writing. With gripping accounts such as “Savage Inequalities” and “Amazing Grace,” he’s done more than perhaps anyone else to raise Americans’ consciousness about the systemic injustices that keep families trapped in poverty and prevent millions of children from reaching their potential.
It’s a topic that is more timely than ever. More Americans are wrestling with the challenges of poverty in the wake of the Great Recession and the foreclosure crisis, both of which hit families of color particularly hard. The gaping disparities between children of different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds take a massive toll on our nation — in moral, civic and economic terms.
Yet we also have more reasons for optimism than ever before. Today there is a robust national debate about the best ways to help children growing up in poverty and a fully fledged movement dedicated to ensuring educational opportunity for all kids — thanks in part to Kozol’s writing, which I have seen inspire countless individuals to become teachers or advocates. Over the past 20 years, we’ve benefited from huge advances in understanding what is possible for low-income students and the most effective ways to intervene on their behalf. We know that demographics need not be destiny.
So it is surprising and disappointing that “Fire in the Ashes,” Kozol’s new book, which is billed as the culminating work of his career, fails to engage with or acknowledge this rich modern context. His detachment from the landscape surrounding his book makes the problems he describes seem dated, rather than a crisis demanding the full attention and resources of our country in 2012.
“Fire in the Ashes” follows several of the children Kozol worked with years ago into adulthood to show how growing up in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the South Bronx affected the rest of their lives. The book is divided into two parts: The first half contains the stories of children who could not escape the abysmal conditions, and the second half tells the stories of the survivors. Most of the characters and stories are drawn from his previous works and will be familiar to many readers.
Kozol immerses readers in the lives of his characters as they grapple with the daily obstacles and indignities of racism and poverty. His long-term, personal relationships with the subjects enable him to bring us into their world in a way that a more detached journalist could not. The vignettes paint an engrossing if bleak picture of communities ravaged and lives ruined by drugs, disease, violence, incarceration, unemployment, homelessness, failing schools and endless instability.
“Fire in the Ashes” makes a compelling case that our society pays an enormous cost for failing to invest in the services and educational opportunities that children need to overcome the challenges of poverty. Kozol also shows what an immense difference people can make when they get directly involved in kids’ lives. When children from these communities make it, it’s almost always because along the way they lucked into finding an advocate who refused to let them fall through the cracks.
Somewhat paradoxically, the book’s central theme is that individual efforts have limited impact when stacked against such overwhelming obstacles. It’s a crucial reminder that most economically disadvantaged children won’t overcome their circumstances unless we commit ourselves to systemic changes and address the root causes, from poverty to segregation.
Still, the book would be more powerful if it were more current. Most of the stories are concentrated in the 1980s, ’90s or at latest the early 2000s, when his subjects were children, with much less time dedicated to exploring their adult lives. Kozol does not dwell in the classrooms or homes of kids growing up in poverty today. His opening anecdote about stark inequality in New York City takes place in the Theater District in 1987. He doesn’t discuss the recession that has caused a dramatic rise in the number of New Yorkers, especially children, living in poverty.
These anachronisms make the book feel outdated and a bit misleading at times. Only in the final pages do we learn that one of the schools he denounces for failing students was shut in 1999. Kozol rails at certain decrepit and dangerous housing projects that form a central backdrop of the book and at the politically connected slumlord who profits from them. We learn on Page 311 that these buildings were completely transformed in 1999 and that the slumlord gave up control of them to a local board of residents. Kozol briefly concedes in the last chapter that the horrific conditions he describes so vividly have improved in recent years.
Equally problematic is what Kozol chooses to exclude from his book — major developments that provide critical context for understanding the realities and prospects of children growing up in poverty today. Readers will finish the book none the wiser about the progress that’s been made and the mounting evidence that there are systematic ways to put disadvantaged kids on a different trajectory in life.
He neglects to mention the transformation of the education landscape in New York City over the past decade since Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office and made improving schools his signature issue. Whether or not you agree with Bloomberg’s agenda, it’s a glaring omission to ignore what Harvard’s education school dean described as “the most dramatic and thoughtful set of large-scale reforms going on anywhere in the country.”
Kozol also fails to recognize the countless organizations and individuals who have been working for years to give low-income students an excellent education and alleviate the conditions they face. Groups such as KIPP, Citizens Schools, New Leaders, Harlem Children’s Zone, Jump Start and Stand for Children — not to mention committed social entrepreneurs, community leaders and educators — have generated huge momentum behind this cause. Many of them are working in Kozol’s old stomping grounds in the South Bronx.
It is simply untrue that, as Kozol writes, “none of these schools . . . is offering the kind of education that children of the neighborhood deserve.” Today hundreds of exceptional schools, both charter and traditional public schools, are putting low-income students on a path to and through college. Given the daunting circumstances Kozol lays out, we should applaud the successes of those who have made a difference against them, rather than diminishing them or making them seem rarer than they are.
If we as a country are ever going to make a meaningful difference against pervasive poverty and its devastating consequences, we need to understand the magnitude of the problem. Kozol’s legacy is that he brought that to light. But it is equally important that people understand what progress is possible so they have hope that the problem can be overcome. On that score, “Fire in the Ashes” will leave readers thirsting for optimism.
FIRE IN THE ASHES
Twenty-five Years Among the Poorest Children in America
By Jonathan Kozol
Crown. 354 pp. $27