After college I wanted to learn about ‘the downtrodden victims of society who lived in abject poverty’.  I lived in Spanish Harlem and the lower eastside – both in New York, in the late 60s and behind the capitol in Wash. D.C. in the early 70s to learn about urban problems.

Rather than ‘the pitiful and oppressed poor held down by the establishment’, I found something different.  Cars were benches – people sat on them, which ground the grit into the paint.  Some stood or walked on them. Occasionally a car found itself up on milk boxes in the morning with the back tires off.  The next day the front tires and engine parts disappeared, and later kids used it as a jungle gym.  Some were set afire.

So much trash and litter filled the gutters, the streets were almost level with the sidewalk, although cleaned every two days.

You knew you were in the slums when coming up the subway stairs.  When your eyes came up to the level of the street, you saw broken glass, litter, and sidewalks darkened by gum and fuel oil.  I got so used to it, when I came up the stairs in a clean neighborhood, it was a pleasant shock.

When furniture caught fire or was unwanted, it was thrown on the sidewalk.  People ‘air mailed’ trash out the windows.  Many phone booths didn’t work, were used as urinals, and were vandalized for change.

I couldn’t get insurance on my apartment.  When I had people over, they had to come by cab.  Kids didn’t yell when playing; they screeched.  You never knew when it was an emergency.  The laundromat had plexiglass windows and ‘iron putty’ covering the bolts holding the washers down.

Once I stopped a 7th grade boy from beating a girl so terrified she sounded like she was dying.  He couldn’t understand what I was doing.

The local SAFEWAY was the only supermarket in the neighborhood.  It had plexiglas windows.  Kids ran in and out flirt­ing, chasing, and stealing.  People double parked, left their shopping carts in the middle of the aisle, and coughed on you in the slow-motion line.

A nearby social agency sent around flyers saying, ‘Let’s stop SAFEWAY from abusing the neighborhood’, ‘Let’s get SAFEWAY to lower prices and improve service’.  These came through the mail slot on a regular basis.  A long interval.  Finally one came through: ‘Since SAFEWAY closed, let’s car pool to the nearest market’.  Incredible.  Instead of bugging SAFEWAY, the social agency should have been trying to keep it open.

This social agency held dances.  The decibels could have taken the paint off the walls.  They blasted out of the building like a locomotive, practically shaking the windows across the street.  Inside no one could even shout.  These were put on with no notice to neighbors and lasted until 2:00 a.m.

The slums had dogs on three legs, blaring stereos and TV’s, babies crying and dogs barking for hours, rock-throwing, windows used as doors, baleful, sullen stares, graffiti, and horn blowing right outside your window in the middle of the night from cab drivers scared to leave their cabs.

The pets were vicious or spooked; and when you told a kid to stop doing something, he took it as a challenge to be smart-aleck.

Many of the poor didn’t like themselves nor each other.  Life was cheap.  People spat, cursed, threatened, fought, drank, and took drugs.  There must have been a high  percentage of accidents.

The mailboxes in some buildings had been broken into so often, people waited out front for their welfare checks.  The apathy and the danger affected teachers, police, and other city workers.  Some must have done only the minimum amount of work, burned out, or transferred.  Chain stores, banks, and supermarkets avoided the area because of: bad checks, shoplifting, phony accidents and claims, shopping cart losses, crime against employees, vandalism to buildings and cars, and time lost in handling food stamps.  (I read Ralph’s in Calif. lost money in nine out of ten of its inner city markets.)   That is why prices are higher.

The slums didn’t need the peace corps; they needed the marine corps.  Everything was down 40 notches.  But this isn’t what we hear.  Somehow the media and academia are compelled to excuse those who live in the slums and blame everyone outside:


1    Blame ‘society’            False.  Most of the problems are the fault of the poor.  Where are ambition and responsibility?  In sending to school kids who haven’t bathed in days?  In the TV on all night instead of homework?  In the empty library, the lack of interest in schools, markets, parks, or voting?  How long do you have to live in a slum before losing ‘understanding and compassion’ for people who abuse you, their pets, kids, property, and each other?  How long do you believe it is ‘racial, economic, or political’ when you live in such a place?

2    Blame the police            Some cities put their worst cops in the slums, but this doesn’t account for all the nonsense.

3    Money is the answer          False.  Millions have been spent on social programs and we still have slums.  In fact, many programs have done more harm than good by causing depen­dence and resentment.

4    No dignity in poverty         Only partly true.  Slum living and slum schooling are undignified, but being poor isn’t.  I have known many who were poor in money and rich in everything else.  (Many of our parents and grandparents were poor and didn’t feel they had less dignity [or that the government owed them a living.])

5    The poor are ambitious       Many people, poor or not, are not ambitious.

6    Mix the slums with better areas       This is idealistic, unfair, and enrages middle class people of all colors, some of whom have worked hard to escape the slums.


What’s the answer?

a   Look at history   – Poverty has been helped more by capitalism than by government programs (socialism).   – The defini­tion of poverty has been expanded over the years.    The American poor have consistently been told they are bad off, when they live like kings compared the way most Americans lived 80 years ago.  Our elderly can tell us about this (and how the poor then had more hope and pride).

b      Be realistic         Approach the subject without rhetoric or emotion.  Find the literature that de­scribes slums honestly and doesn’t excuse the poor who mismanage their affairs.  Learn about them from mer­chants, in­surance com­panies, creditors, realtors, city employees, bus and cab drivers, and the working and sensible poor.  Acknowledge that higher prices in the slums are the result of the added costs.  Study how the good elements there raise good kids despite enormous odds.  Study how poor im­migrants pass our poor.

c      Avoid liberals        Most of those in the media, academia, social work, and the ACLU are liberals.  Most have never lived in a slum, nor been poor.  They are the ‘excuse industry.’  Even after the facts about many of the poor mismanaging their affairs are glaring clear, liberals are still turning over every rock looking for ‘oppres­sion, cultural deprivation, inequity, exploita­tion, violation of rights’, etc.

d      Plain language         No jargon, rhetoric, psychobabble, or slum jive.

e      Fair share            of services and competent city workers.  This is dif­ficult as better workers gravitate to better neighbor­hoods, and some cities ‘dump’ their worst workers into  the slums.

f      Fix responsibility        for noise, rundown property, abandoned cars, illegal dumping, crime, etc.

g      Law enforcement        The small matters of noise, litter, parking, panhandling, vagrancy, etc. add up.  They are symbolic, they affect morale, and cleaning them up causes interest in going after bigger problems.

h      Traditional values Whether the law enforcer is from the slums or not, he has to understand the slums on one hand, but BELIEVE in society’s values on the other. He doesn’t think noise, threats, screeching, drunken­ness, crime are normal. Such enfor­cers need maturi­ty, con­fidence, and convic­tion as their work is all uphill and totally thankless in today’s permissive society. Such people are usually clean cut. The disheveled ones are often ineffective. They often have more problems than the poor.

i     Free market (the private sector)



Turn housing projects over to tenants. In part of Wash. D.C. this raised rent collec­tions l05%, cut vacancy rates l3%, and cut ad­ministrative costs 60%, crime 5% and teenage pregnan­cy and welfare dependency 50%. In other cities the same arrangement cut vacancy l8%, robbery 77%, and crime 66%. Next comes tenant owner­ship.

Phase out rent control; it creates inequities and a housing shortage. Allow cheaper housing, urban homes­tead­ing, and the sublett­ing of rooms.



Allow ‘right to work’ and ‘work at home’. Allow kids under l4 to work part time. Study lowering or phasing out the minimum wage. This would create thousands of jobs for drop­outs, delinquents, criminals, derelicts, addicts, the homeless, and others – many of whom need to develop work habits. They should be able to offer their services at a competitive wage.



Allow parents to teach their kids at home and to have a choice of schools. Schools would have to compete for students and teachers



Privatize fire depts, parks, transportation, mail, education, justice, and charity. These have been successful.

All of these would let the poor who are motivated get ahead, and not be held back by those who aren’t. People could live with more dignity and hope as they did in the past.


(Some of the above came from the N.Y. Times, G. Gilder, E. Banfield, H. Hazlitt, Wash. Post, the L.A. Times.)

Earlier version       POLICE TIMES               Sep  86

Shorter version       ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER     4/12/87