Heidi's Reviews > Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation

Amazing Grace by Jonathan Kozol
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's review
Jan 13, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: nonfiction, social-issues
Read in January, 2011

This was, hands down, one of the most depressing books I've ever read. Author Jonathan Kozol visits neighborhoods in the South Bronx, one of the poorest areas of the United States, and talks with many of the people who live there about their lives, and it is astonishing. Poverty, drugs, prostitution, gun violence, AIDS, rat infestations -- all make their home among crumbling infrastructure in neighborhoods where public safety and education are neglected by those in charge, sharing space with children who know no other kind of life, and perhaps never will.

Reagan popularized the image of the Welfare Queen in the '80s; in the current economic climate, prominent politicians and political candidates have suggested that the unemployed are just lazy; heated debate is still going on in the US as to whether or not access to health care is a right or a privilege. After reading "Amazing Grace" I'm more convinced than ever that poverty, true poverty, is seriously misunderstood in this country. According to this book New York City has basically established a self-perpetuating system of poverty in some areas, and has proceeded to pretend that such places do not exist and do not need substantial assistance. It's preposterous that people in one of the richest cities in one of the richest countries in the world should live and die in such filthy, dangerous conditions because the city wants to save money.

Most of the book is comprised only of Kozol's observations of the neighborhood, and conversations with residents there, with very little editorializing or speculation on the author's part. When I first finished the book I was unhappy with the way Kozol chose to end it: there's no silver lining to the situation of the people he describes, there's no easy fix to these problems. But upon reflection I appreciate the fact that he didn't try to sugarcoat things. It was terribly sad, but felt completely honest.

This book is over 15 years old now, so I've spent a lot of time wondering if and how things have changed in the intervening years for the people Kozol met. If the recent economic disasters in the US are anything to go by, I have to assume things have not magically improved in the South Bronx. I won't try to pretend I know anything about how best to deal with this kind of poverty, but this book was really eye-opening in exposing me to its very existence within the US. Maybe if more people were aware, from the work of people like Kozol, maybe then something would be able to change.

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