For Janet, a mother of three, life in Harlem is a daily struggle
There are 23 million black Americans. One-third of them live below the poverty line. Over the last 20 years, in inner-city ghettos nationwide, abandoned buildings, boarded-up stores, and garbage-strewn lots have replaced eclectic neighborhoods that once teemed with life. In Harlem, one-third of residential buildings stand vacant. When fair-housing legislation allowed the black middle class to move out of the ghettos, the poorest, the least educated, and least employable were left behind. On a wide and windy avenue in the heart of Harlem, an antiquated barbershop squats below street level. Aside from a storefront church, it is the block's only surviving enterprise on that side of the broad, once-vital street. Many of the building entrances -- both residential and commercial -- are neatly filled in with concrete blocks. These buildings are empty, abandoned by their owners, sealed to prevent the homeless, or drug dealers, from moving in.
Yet over the bricked-in, sightless eyes of the windows, some frilly curtains, shutters, even an occasional potted geranium have been painted, by order of the Housing and Preservation Department of the City of New York.
The purpose of this cosmetic camouflage is to make the street appear more attractive, more lived in. But the relentless cheerfulness of the painted windows only serves to point up the desolation and squalor beneath them.
On Saturday morning the barbershop is crowded. It is the neighborhood living room, a place for people to hang out, to talk -- to get away, for a little while, from their troubles. Janet, mother of three, has draped her lanky body over a chair and is talking with the manicurist. She speaks in a jivy, New York-accented ``black English.'' She is intelligent, worldly, articulate, witty. An attractive woman in her early 30s, she is innately chic, though her clothes are well worn. She wears jeans and a brown suede jacket, and she looks dejected. After a while, she gets into conversation with a stranger who asks, among other things, how she manages to get through the day, how she keeps up her spirits.
Janet replies matter-of-factly, ``Cocaine.''
Janet left her husband 13 years ago because of his violence, and her youngest child is by another man. For the last eight years, she and her three children have been on their own. Since then, the family of four has been living on welfare -- $624 a month, which includes a $244 rent subsidy for their two-room apartment and $128 in food stamps.
The children pack groceries in a local supermarket after school, each earning between $15 and $35 a week. During the school year, they also participate in the free breakfast and lunch program at their public schools. The family's $7,488 a year in total welfare payments is increased to about $10,000 by their part-time jobs.
``I make sure these kids get out of here every morning in time for their school breakfast,'' says Janet. Even so, she admits that ``all the money goes on food. They eat three times as much as what the welfare office says a child should eat. On the poor days, all we eat is corn bread.''
Janet took a commercial-academic course in high school, dropped out at age 17 to get married (though she points out emphatically that she was not pregnant), and later obtained an equivalency diploma. After that, she attended City College for a year and a half, followed by stints at two business institutes, a computer school, and a beautician's academy -- at least one of which, she says, proved to be fraudulent. She has taken, and passed, the employment tests for the New York City Sanitation Department, the United States Postal Service, and the New York City Transit Authority.
``They say the government is hiring now,'' she says. ``Oh yeah? Who are they hiring? Not us. Where are they hiring? Not here.'' So over the years, she says, whenever she can find the work, she has supplemented her welfare check (against regulations) with taxi driving, nightclub dancing, and, very occasionally, prostitution.
Janet appears to be educationally qualified to hold a good job. But for her, and for many poor blacks, there are tremendous psychological barriers to venturing into the white domain ``downtown,'' where most of the jobs are to be found. All of Janet's clothes are secondhand, and look it. In any case, she almost never has the $2 round-trip subway fare.
Many have overcome this sense of insecurity at facing the white world, disciplining themselves to scrape together the car fare to find work. But Janet's money goes mostly on food. And, apparently, she sometimes prefers the $5 or $10 ``ego adrenalin'' of a short cocaine high to a long subway ride with a probable rejection at the end.
Janet and her children live a few blocks from the barbershop, in a typical Harlem tenement that is a little better maintained than most. The graffiti on the walls are minimal, and there isn't much garbage on the stairs. Janet considers herself fortunate: The building they lived in before had no heat and no running water for long periods of time. Janet would open the fire hydrant on the street to get water to flush her toilet or to wash. And in winter this water, boiling on the stove, was the family's only source of heat.
``You turn on the gas stove,'' says Janet, remembering the building where she used to live. ``You put big pots of water on and you keep them going all night. You take blankets and you nail them up to the windows. Our house was always dark.''
Today, Janet's apartment is well heated -- even overheated -- and her two windows let in abundant light.
``In the morning it's so beautiful in here,'' she says. ``The heat from the sun comes in, warms up the house. Every morning the sun wakes you up.''
A large bed with a faded green bedspread, a refrigerator, and a stove almost fill one of her two rooms. The floors are bare, and so worn they seem to be turning to dust. Since there is only one chair, the family usually sits on the bed. Since there are no closets or chests of drawers, their clothes are piled on the floor and on the two nonworking television sets. Some clothes are in garbage bags, waiting until there is enough spare cash to take them to the cleaners. There is no phone.
Janet's 10-year-old son, Timmy, sleeps in the big bed with his mother. Janique, 14, and Marquette, 13, have bunk beds in the other room -- little more than a hallway leading to the bathroom. The girls sleep directly on their mattresses. There are no sheets, no pillows, no pillowcases. In the bathroom there are no towels, no toilet paper, and no soap. The toilet flushes languidly, or not at all. The sink and bathtub drain poorly and are coated with grime. Food stamps cannot be used to buy household items such as cleaning agents or paper products. Janet's apartment is far more comfortable than many homes of poor black families. At least she does not have to contend with falling plaster, holes in the walls and floor, rats, broken windows, or inadequate heat and hot water, at least for the present.
Three worries preoccupy Janet most of the time: how to scrape up enough money to pay the 100 percent interest the loan shark charges when she borrows -- usually every week -- for an emergency or to make ends meet; how to counteract in her children the corrupting influences of the world around them; and how to find a steady job that pays enough to get her off welfare.
She worries about her daughters now that they are nearing the age when many teen-age girls begin to engage in sex.
``They're at the stage where they're liking boys, and it's driving me crazy. I can't keep the guys from knocking on my door. They're young and they want to see the girls.''
When her daughters mention the word boyfriend, their mother reacts indignantly, unwilling for them to openly acknowledge their interest in boys. ``Boyfriend? Ain't no such thing as boyfriends around here. I don't know what you call boyfriends.''
But Raymond and Samuel, two 17-year-olds, manage to spend a lot of time with Janique and Marquette anyway. They may go to a park a few blocks away. When Janet is home, they sit on the bunk beds with the girls and talk. They are not allowed in the apartment after 8 p.m., but when Janet is out, they spend hours with the girls on the landing outside.
Janique is adamant that she will not be a teen-age mother.
``Of course it'll never happen to me,'' she says with confidence. ``Some teen-age mothers are too young to even take care of themselves. Some of them drop out of school when they have the baby. You have to stay at home long hours, all night. It's a headache.
``I wouldn't want to get pregnant before I got married. I want to be able to have a house, and I want to have support. That way, if I get a divorce at least I'll have enough money to take care of the kids.''
If Janique is familiar with effective contraceptive methods, she does not say so. Her mother's recommended contraceptive appears to be abstinence. ``Stay away from the boys!'' is her frequent warning.
The birth rate among black teenage girls is 22.6 percent. Many experts say that lack of information about effective contraceptives, and limited access to them, are major causes of teen-age pregnancy in America.
Janet is quite optimistic when it comes to her daughters' education. Janique is a ``bookworm, '' says her mother; she is a top student (as reflected in her grades) who is slated to be transferred to a special college-preparatory class at another school.
Janique recently won an essay contest, and she calls the library ``my favorite place.'' But studying is hard in her apartment. There is no table space to work at, and usually the whole family - and a few friends - are together in one room. A sample of her homework on a crumpled piece of paper reveals shaky spelling, grammar, and syntax. Although Janique, at 14, is in the seventh grade, to an observer her work seems to be far below this level.
Nevertheless, she is determined to go to college. ``Of course I'm going to college. I'm going to be a scientist,'' she says. But the on the basis of her current academic competence, it will be difficult for her to achieve these goals.
Marquette, who is 13, is in the fifth grade. She has been put in a special-education class because of what was diagnosed as speech and learning defects. Janet is pleased with the school's special attention to Marquette, and feels she is making progress, noting that her speech has improved.
Janet worries most about Timmy. She knows that for young black males, the chances of success -- indeed, of survival -- are problematic. She fears that the pressures of the outside world preoccupy Timmy to the exclusion of his schoolwork and normal childhood activities.
``At school they're talking about learning to read, and his mother's out here wondering whether she's going to get a job,'' says Janet. ``When he comes home, I'm tired, frustrated; I have my own bad attitude. I'm broke and the refrigerator's empty. So why should he come back home and see this? He'd rather stay out.''
``Now,'' says Janet, describing, in the biblical terms of her upbringing, a scenario she imagines with dread, ``Along comes Satan. `Hey kid! Wanna make a dollar?' `Sure!' says Timmy. `Here,' says this man with the leather jacket and the gold chains. He hands him some little white packets. `Stand here and sell these.' So Timmy sells some drugs and he's got $50.''
Indeed, according to statistics, Timmy's life has a fairly good chance of moving in the direction of crime.
``What does poverty do to people?'' Janet asks with rising intensity. ``Poverty is like starving the human person. The best I can do for my kids is to give them guidance, to make sure they get an education, and to hope that what I show them doesn't get run over by glittering gold.''
In many ways, Janet is typical of poor blacks in America today. Despite constant efforts to improve her life, her prospects remain limited, her horizons narrow. She finds her immediate community a dangerous place, and the more distant, white world an alien one. Her life is a maze of contradictions: Though she says she takes drugs and has resorted to prostitution when desperate for money, she genuinely values the Bible she keeps by her bed; though always hard pressed for cash, she often spends it impulsively.
Most of all, Janet is emotionally vulnerable. Disappointments, worries, and frustrations that others with better support systems could handle tend to crush her. But most of the time, disappointments, worries, and frustrations are all she knows. In inner-city communities like Harlem, 54% of households are headed by a woman. Of these female-headed households, 51% live below the poverty line.1 SOURCE: Children's Defense Fund. The official poverty line for a family of four is $10,9892; 21% of black Americans rely on public assistance, fewer than is generally realized. But 31% of blacks, or 7,163,631, live below the poverty line. Of these, more than 2 million are not on welfare.3 Of American families receiving welfare benefits, 2,075,000 are white; 1,371,000 are black.3 SOURCE: Social Security Administration. In Harlem, 4,000 `old law' tenements - declared unfit for human habitation in 1901 - are still occupied. Of 8,507 occupied buildings, 1,127 are in poor condition.4 One effect of such conditions nationwide is that blacks, 12% of the population, account for 45% of deaths by fire.2 SOURCE: US Census Bureau. Throughout the US, 18% of blacks live in rented housing with incomplete plumbing and/or overcrowding, compared with 7% of whites; 21% of black children live in substandard housing, compared with 9% of white children.5 SOURCE: Children's Defense Fund. The birthrate among poor black teen-age girls is 23%. Although much has recently been made of this fact, the birthrate for white teen-age girls from low-income families is almost as high: 21%.5 SOURCE: Ibid. Public education in the US is in crisis. The proportion of black children below the standard grade level is 40%, compared with 23% of white children. Experts believe the dropout rate at many inner-city high schools is 70 or 80%. Illiteracy among black adults is estimated to be 44%, compared with 16% among whites.6 SOURCE: `Illiterate America,' by Jonathan Kozol, 1985. Black youths are overrepresented in the number of crimes committed, arrests, incarcerations, and deaths by homicide. In New York City, blacks account for 54% of teen-age crimes and 58% of drug-related arrests. More than half the US felony convictions are for blacks. Black males make up 46% of the US prison population. Black males are six times as likely to die from homicide as white males.7 SOURCE: New York Police Department.