A Camden High School student spoke at my class last semester. He told one particularly poignant story, of how he’d been evicted from his home and had spent a few months living out of a car. Each morning, at 5:45am, his mother would wake him so that he could be the first person to go into the local McDonalds. There, he would brush his teeth and get ready for school.
Among all the stories I’ve heard in Camden, I think this one may be the most important. It is about stability, and how hard it is for young people who lack it to succeed. This student talked about how he never had that stability, how he was constantly moving, until he joined the Junior ROTC program. The stability and structure of going to that program each day after school was what turned his life around.
This young man isn’t alone in his need for stability. Camden City as a whole desperately needs sustained commitment from the state of New Jersey. Because Camden runs a significant annual deficit, it is constantly in need of state support. The politics of giving that support can make or break the city.
For example, when Gov. Chris Christie was first elected governor, he needed to prove his conservative bonafides. In 2010, he slashed municipal funding across the board, something that devastated the state’s poorest cities, and caused Camden to fire more than a third of its police force. Unsurprisingly, the next two years saw record amounts of violent crime and murder. Fast forward a few more years to 2013, and the Governor has a new pet policy (“regionalizing” the police force, busting the police union), and the hiring of more officers has led to numbers returning to 2009 levels. Gov. Christie solved the crisis his policies caused, and the New York Times is fawning over it. It remains to be seen if this new force is saving money, budget numbers haven’t been released. But we do know that one time federal grants have been activated when they could have been activated previously, and that the elimination of the previous union creates a one-time discount on police-officer salaries (the new force will become more expensive as experienced officers now paid like newbies see their salaries rise with more years in the new union). The resulting drop in crime from this short-term benefit neatly coincides with his run for the presidency.
That’s not the only time Gov. Christie has taken away with one hand, given back with the other, and gotten rave reviews for it. When Gov. Christie came into office, $170 million had been committed to Camden by the SDA, which is in charge of maintaining school buildings. $100 million of that was earmarked for Camden High, but all of the spending was tabled while Gov. Christie’s administration reviewed the SDA to ensure efficient spending. In December, the SDA announced $50 million was going to rehab Camden High, a far cry from the $100 that was dedicated to an entire rebuild (although the historic exterior facade would have stayed).
Which brings me back to stability. When it was in Gov. Christie’s interest to strand Camden, that is what he did. Now that he wants a more national profile, Camden sees dollars. Of course, supporting Camden is about dollars and policy, but it is also about political will. See this ugly post by Matt Rooney at Save Jersey which calls the long-delayed rehab of a crumbling building “money down the toilet.”
This is a theme that many of the Camden voices I look up to the most are constantly bringing to my attention. Folks like Ray Lamboy at the Latin American Economic Development Association or Kelly Francis at the Camden County NAACP talk to me about how often a plan is started, then scrapped when a new governor is in town. Or when the political winds change.
Tucked into Jason Nark’s interesting 2014 profile of Camden is the same story:
Nark looks at how crime numbers spiked before state police were brought in, then cratered, then slowly ticket back up without state support. Then crime numbers spiked again when Gov. Christie cut municipal aid, only to come back down when it was in the state’s interest to curb them.
Camden is many things. It is a place to hide the suburbs’ problems (drugs, trash, dirty industry and human waste). It is a place the poor congregate both because of exclusion, and because of its cheap housing stock and robust public transportation. It is a place that needs support from the state annually, because of its deficit.
But it is, among all of its other needs, a place in need of stability. Where is Camden’s 20 year plan? Is that something the state, or both parties, or multiple governors, could even commit to? And if not, does the lack of political will condemn Camden to twist in the wind?