Almost anywhere I've gone since the Bronx sodomy attack which saw 10 teen and young adult "gang" members allegedly assault three men they knew or suspected to be gay, it's been hard to escape remarks about the badness of Bronx youth. The repeated statement that they "deserve everything that's coming to them," often seems at much aimed at the general idea of Bronx youth as at the specifically accused young criminals.
I don't know any more about the accused youth than what has been in the news; nor am I a person who thinks that youth "programs" can solve all youth problems or that crummy childhoods excuse assault. But I do know this. The staggering level at which Bronx youth are systematically abused by public institutions -- and the extent to which this is publicly accepted -- deserves as much comment and attention as that heaped on the ten accused.
What is striking about this systematic abuse, a manifestation of the endless contempt for poor kids without any ordinary influence on this earth because their parents are without ordinary influence, is that it falls steadily on "good" kids and "bad" kids alike. Any institution or bureaucracy or official -- up to the Mayor and beyond -- will throw away Bronx kids as a matter of course when convenient or when what should be theirs is politically more useful if allocated elsewhere.
Let's start anywhere. A few months ago, the New York Post had an interesting article on all the multi-million dollar new "adventure" playgrounds, replete with fun perks like climbing webs and "discovery tunnels," which had opened in New York City. Well, not exactly in New York City -- all except one were located in Manhattan. Not a single one was placed in the Bronx, the borough which has the highest rate of childhood obesity and whose kids are constantly exhorted to "go out and play." Indeed, to the contrary of having the enjoyment of new playing places, some four years later, Bronx kids still do not have back the acres of fields snatched away from them for the new Yankee Stadium; they had been promised these fields would be replaced by the spring 2009 opening of the new stadium.
The impact of this snatch has been not just to curtail individual play but the decimation of Bronx teams -- especially Little League and school teams -- who have no place to practice and whose young members have learned a harsh lesson about their last place in the universe. This lapse of years means that hundreds of kids have lost an expected part of youth -- the camaraderie and ordinary fellowship and excitement of sports and teams and leagues and games. It has caused a baffled bitterness among Bronx kids that is almost beyond calculating. "I thought our principal would try harder to get our field," one teen remarked sadly, "but he just stopped talking about it."
They see too clearly not just that they come last, but that they are so far last even the adults around them, from their parents to their principals, cannot protect them.
Let's go from play to work. Between city, state and federal cuts, New York City summer youth job slots were slashed from 56,000 in 2009 to 17,000 this past summer -- a loss of almost 40,000 part-time minimum wage jobs for kids. After all, in a financial crisis, government bureaucracies needed every last penny, even the pennies from part-time minimum wage work for kids, to protect their own employment. These jobs, short-term though they may be, are crucial to youth across New York City; in the Bronx, where there is almost no private sector employment for youth, they are all that's possible.
Usually during the summer, our Bronx AIDS program train teens who are orphaned or variously parentless to be mentors for younger kids in similarly difficult situations, and we help them apply for summer youth so they can receive some payment for their wonderful work. For a number of reasons, including parental AIDS deaths, the Bronx has the city's highest level of orphans, foster care kids and kids who just seem to be wandering among relatives and friends. But, with only 17,000 slots available for the whole city, none of our mentors were selected for summer youth pay. Their disappointment at not getting paid was heart-breaking; yet, even in that disappointment, these youth, who so few care about, still came daily in the summer and carried on helping the younger kids.
It made me very proud -- and so sad: here was such an important point of these youths' development, their being part of the community and learning their power to help others is how kids in these situations turn from bullying and hurting. No one cared. The massive job loss for poor youth, with its terrible and lasting consequences, made no public impression -- although the outcry if some 40,000 city employees were summarily made jobless can well be imagined. I phoned and emailed a few prominent city reporters to suggest -- urge, actually -- that someone have the decency to do a major story on what had happened to those 40,000 kids. Were they hanging out, in despair, in juvenile detention or just one more step to bitterly realizing their powerlessness? No reporter even called back; in New York City, you can just lose 40,000 jobs for poor kids and no reporter will notice. In the Bronx, you can defund orphans trying to work for a few weeks and no one will notice.
Finally, let's look at life and death. The Bronx has the city's highest level of children and teens living precariously with a parent with AIDS -- or who have already been orphaned by AIDS. (Actually, overall, New York City has the most AIDS orphans in the Western world but this is something else you'd never know. It's especially striking that a Mayor who seems to have a word -- or several -- for any and every subject, from gun control to banning school bake sales, never has a single word to say about a level of orphaning that so fundamentally defines youth existence in New York).
In any event, one would think it would behoove the city to try and keep as many Bronx parents as possible alive; but it doesn't. The city receives some $110 million a year in special AIDS support and care funding (commonly known as Ryan White funding) from the federal government. Traditionally, part of that funding has gone to special support services for families where the parent -- usually a single mother -- has AIDS. In 2005, the city closed what was the only Bronx-based family AIDS program funded with this money yet gave four agencies in Manhattan (which has 35% fewer mothers with AIDS than the Bronx!) funding for family AIDS programs. My organization, Health People, had run the Bronx family program for years -- run it so well, I might say, that over almost 14 years, every single time the city had any extra federal money to be awarded to high-performing AIDS programs that were exceeding their contracted responsibilities, we were among those to receive extra funding. Still, we were forced to end services for some 400 mothers with AIDS; our official city "disposition plan" -- as it was so accurately and grimly called -- had us refer these women to one of the newly funded Manhattan programs; that "better" program, as it happened, never opened at all, which we only found out accidentally, months later, too late for a staff that no longer existed to assure these sick Bronx mothers were back in services somewhere.
In its preference for the powerful agencies and politically important neighborhoods of Manhattan, the New York City Department of Health left a new trail of maternal deaths in the Bronx. Since 2005, the percentage of Bronx women among New York City women's HIV/AIDS deaths has risen from 28% to 32%; we don't know how many AIDS orphans these women have left behind; even with the well known Bloomberg Administration data obsession -- that extends to having scooter patrols to count up potholes -- New York City absolutely refuses to count up these children, although it is a simple matter of tabulating how many kids age 18 and under a dead mother leaves. After all, if you don't count them, and acknowledge the count publicly, they don't appear to exist!
But they do exist. They exist in a city where the enforced public and bureaucratic brutality toward children of the poorest borough is common place. If you are kid there, they can take your playing fields; they can take your little paycheck; and finally, they can take your parent.