Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-five Years Among the Poorest Children in America

by Jonathan Kozol

Crown Publishers (2012)

Book Review

Unlike Kozol’s prior books, which focus on the abysmal condition of inner city schools, Fire in the Ashes follows the families of specific children Kozol has befriended and their disastrous living conditions. The families he describes are either those he encountered at the Martinique Hotel homeless shelter in midtown Manhattan or those he met through an after school program at St Ann’s Episcopal Church in Mott Haven.

With a media annual income of $17,000 for a family of five, Mott Haven is the poorest neighborhood in the South Bronx and the poorest congressional district in the US. Official unemployment (which doesn’t count those who have given up and quit looking) is 14%.

The book poignantly describes the brutal living conditions the children and their families confront, including chronic malnutrition, chronic asthma (from asbestos and incinerators), sexual exploitation of mothers by shelter guards, grooming by gangs and drug dealers, untreated parental mental illness, repeated episodes of homelessness and overcrowded classrooms and schools (many of which have lost funding to private charter schools).

Kozol follows the children of eight African American and Hispanic families from primary school through adulthood, as they struggle with social service and educational systems that have virtually abandoned them.

Some of the children he befriends graduate from high school (and even college) and end up in long term employment. Others drop out and are swallowed up by the criminal justice system. In each case, the children who succeed do so because someone (a teacher, social worker, pastor or Kozol himself) offers financial assistance to ensure they received the educational support they needed.

Although Kozol (with the help of readers and supporters) has set up an Education Action Fund to assist students from desperately poor racially segregated neighborhoods like Mott Haven, he argues against this type of individual intervention as a long term solution.

The real answer, he maintains, is to provide public schools in neighborhoods like Mott Haven, with the best educational funding (instead of the worst), the smallest classes (at present most classes have over 30 pupils), and the best prepared and best paid teachers (instead of the least experienced, most poorly paid).

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