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Child Breadwinners in the Shadows and the Courts

In Camden, New Jersey, young children and youths face community violence, struggling schools, family problems, and poverty on a daily basis. They navigate a city widely considered to be among the most dangerous in the United States. The unemployment rate in Camden is approximately 40 percent, and about 90 percent of the city’s school children are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. Many families experience difficulty meeting fundamental needs, such as acquiring sufficient food. Here, Dr. Marano reflects on the relationship between incarcerated youths, food insecurity, and the juvenile justice system. —Cyndi Maurer, PhD (editor)


The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread. —Anatole France

Anatole France was known for his ironic commentary on French social conditions at the end of the 19th century. His words continue to resonate because, for some, there is difficulty in securing shelter, food, and other things that cost money.  Having enough money for food, clothing, and shelter may seem basic to many of us but would seem like luxury to others.

In modern times, although the homeless poor still sleep under bridges and beg in the streets, few adults or children literally steal bread. Yet adolescents and even younger children may sell drugs or commit other offenses to obtain the means to provide for their own needs and sometimes those of their families. This aspect of a child’s world in America is one that many do not see or want to think about.

The role of juvenile offenders as providers first came to my attention when I was a young assistant prosecutor in the juvenile court in Camden, New Jersey. One day I observed a young man charged with drug distribution turn to his mother as he was being led away and inconspicuously hand her a number of bills from a wad of cash in his pocket. The demeanor of the mother as she accepted the bills left me with the impression that her son was partly supporting the household with his illicit income.

The memory of that scene came back to me a few years ago as I interviewed incarcerated young men at a juvenile facility. When asked how they spent the proceeds from their illegal activities, some said they gave money to their mothers, and many named food first or second among their own purchases. One boy who lived with his father seemed ashamed as he reported that rice was sometimes the only food left in his house. He would then go to his mother’s apartment looking for something to eat but would find nothing there either. This boy sold drugs in Camden and purchased food for himself.

Several years ago, ABC’s Diane Sawyer did a story for 20/20 that focused on Camden’s poor children, highlighting food insecurity among their many challenges. The featured children were portrayed sympathetically as young victims of poverty, “waiting on the world to change,” as the title of the story put it. Many poor adolescents, however, are not waiting on the world to change but are attempting to make a social and economic space for themselves in the world as they find it.

Not all delinquency is driven by food insecurity, but the basic needs of numerous children are inadequately met. Many disadvantaged children seek to provide for themselves, whether lawfully or unlawfully. Some work in fast-food restaurants or clothing stores, some babysit or hand out fliers for local businesses, and some sell drugs, rob, or steal. Those in the latter group usually find their way into the juvenile court system, where judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, probation officers, and social workers attempt to fashion just outcomes for young people who may have experienced little “majestic equality” in other aspects of their lives.

The high ideals of the Anglo-American system of common law are proclaimed on the facades of two well-known court buildings. The U.S. Supreme Court Building bears the famous words “Equal Justice Under Law” on its pediment. These four simple words have raised many questions over the years, including whether the equal enforcement of the same laws can have an unequal impact on persons in different economic circumstances. Like Anatole France, most of us would answer that question in the affirmative.

Indeed, the challenge of approximating equal justice by applying the laws to young people in unequal circumstances is even more complex than it might seem. Engraved above the main entrance of the Old Bailey, the main criminal court building in London, is this directive: “Defend the Children of the Poor & Punish the Wrongdoer.” As a prosecutor of juveniles in Camden, one of the poorest and most dangerous cities in the nation, I found that the wrongdoers usually were the children of the poor. The world of these children was often characterized by the combination of poverty and violence that permeated their city. How were we to defend the children of the poor and punish the wrongdoers when they were the same people?

The rehabilitative ideal that governs juvenile courts guides the professionals’ efforts. Nonetheless, not only do almost all the children and adolescents who appear in court return to the same families and neighborhoods where their problems originated, many reappear in court following the commission of new offenses. These facts dampen the collective hope for a successful outcome in the case of each child.

It is difficult to know how many youths actually engage in criminal activity to stave off hunger. Several of the young men I talked with said that they used some of the proceeds of their crimes to “help out with the bills” because their parents were “struggling.” Rent and utility payments were likewise often pressing issues for families, and I knew of delinquent children in Camden living in homes with no electricity. Food, rent, and utilities were expenses managed from one crisis to another in many households.

It has become a cliché to say that many people have to choose between paying the rent and buying food. When there is money to be made in the streets to avoid confronting such a choice, some young people will seize that option, especially those living with a mother who has difficulty making ends meet. In such circumstances, what the law views as acting irresponsibly may look to an adolescent a lot like acting responsibly.

The child or adolescent provider is a reality in American cities, though he or she remains a hidden reality for several reasons. Because their income-generating activity is often illegal, these young people prefer to keep their actions out of sight; for the same reason, their contributions to the household do not appear in official statistics. Likewise, both the youths and their parents are frequently ashamed of the need for the children to provide in this way and may conspire to shield such a role from view. Finally, our cherished image of childhood in America is that children are provided for by adults, so the inversion of this relationship is an idea we tend to resist. Nonetheless, whether actively contributing to the support of the household or simply providing for some of their own needs, these invisible breadwinners are part of a child’s world in America today.


Learn more:

ABC 20/20 Episode, “Waiting on the World to Change”, 1/26/07



Diane Marano, Juvenile Offenders and Guns: Voices behind Gun Violence.



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