* Camden, New Jersey

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There was a time when Camden, New Jersey was a model of prosperity. In 1917, for example, this city was home to 365 active industries that employed some 51,000 people. Manufacturing was a major activity here, where such companies as RCA Victor, Campbell’s Soup, and the New York Shipbuilding Company were headquartered. During World War II, the more than 36,000 workers employed in Camden’s shipyards built some of America’s largest warships. But over time, the excessive demands of unionized labor made it exceedingly expensive to conduct business in Camden, forcing many corporations to move away to greener, more business-friendly pastures.

Today Camden is an economic and social basket case. Virtually wherever one looks, one can readily see evidence of its decline: abandoned houses with collapsing roofs, crumbling facades, missing or boarded-up windows, and “lawns” choked with several years worth of weeds and brambles; churches with bullet holes in their stained glass windows; walls of buildings defaced by all manner of graffiti; the stench of sewage pervading run-down streets and avenues; and small, melancholy shrines (often adorned with empty liquor bottles) marking the spots where someone was once murdered.

Camden has not had a Republican mayor since 1936. The first mayor of this Democratic era was George Brunner, who served six terms from 1936-59. He was followed by Alfred Pierce (1959-69), a native of Camden who was raised in poverty and grew up to practice law. As mayor, the white liberal Pierce emphasized the need for racial diversity in city government, urging blacks and Hispanics in particular to run for City Council.

But Pierce’s efforts to promote racial harmony were unable to quell the black militancy that was rising in Camden, as in so many other American cities, during the Sixties. Violent race riots—complete with arson and looting—struck Camden in 1969 and again two years later. Though some degree of “order” was eventually restored, the city has never been the same since the riots. In the aftermath of those uprisings, legal businesses left Camden in droves and were replaced, to some degree, by unlawful ventures. It is estimated, for instance, that the city today has approximately 175 open-air drug markets—outdoor locations throughout Camden where dealers make rapid, furtive transactions in streets and alleyways—through which some $250 million worth of narcotics move each and every year. Most of these illegal dealers are affiliated with gangs like the Bloods, the Latin Kings, Los Nietos, and MS-13.

Also in the decades that followed the riots, Camden’s government was beset by high levels of malfeasance and mismanagement as the Mayor’s office took on some of the qualities of a police line-up. Mayor Angelo Errichetti (1973-81), for instance, was convicted of federal corruption charges and went to prison in 1981; Mayor Arnold B. Webster (1993-97) pleaded guilty to federal wire fraud charges in 1998 and was sentenced to six months’ house arrest and three years’ probation; and Mayor Milton Milan (1997-2000) was convicted in 2000 on 14 counts of drug-money laundering, insurance fraud, and taking bribes from organized crime leaders. All were Democrats.

During these decades of political corruption and economic decline, Camden became increasingly dependent upon financial help from New Jersey’s state government. This had a profoundly negative impact on Camden as a whole because it was a period during which the city’s population and tax base alike were declining at a rapid rate—and thus a period when local government should have been scaled back accordingly. But instead, Camden’s Democrats exploited state aid as a means of artificially propping up their city’s hollow economy while continuing to expand Camden’s government apparatus. Between 2000 and 2008, for instance, city spending in Camden rose by 20%—a trend propelled in large measure by steep hikes in the salaries and benefits of city employees. Today those seeds of financial improvidence are bearing a bitter harvest, as Camden’s $150 million annual budget dwarfs the meager $25 million it receives in tax revenues each year.

In short, Camden, despite the hundreds of millions of dollars it has received in loans, grants and direct aid from the state, remains a financial train wreck. Its annual per capita income of $12,869 is 54% below the national average and scarcely one third the statewide average. The city’s median household income, meanwhile, is $26,705—about half the national median. And its 38.6% poverty rate is 4 times higher than New Jersey’s statewide average. A 2012 Census report identified Camden as the poorest city in the United States, with a child poverty rate of 56.7%. The city’s unemployment rate in July 2013 was 16.8%, more than twice the national average.

In 2011, Camden’s political leaders sought to close a $26.5 million budget deficit by laying off one-fourth of all city government workers—including half of the 375-officer police force. Camden residents, already fearful of the rampant crime in their city, knew that lawbreakers would be further emboldened by this development. “They’ll be coming into the houses,” one resident ruefully told the New Jersey Star-Ledger. “They know you can’t call the cops. There won’t be any cops to call.”

This was hardly an exaggeration. Indeed, there were occasions in 2011 and 2012 when no more than 12 officers at any given time were tasked with patrolling the entire city of Camden. Dispirited and overwhelmed by this state of affairs, Camden police began taking sick days in record numbers. As NBC reporter Mike Taibbi put it: “After the 2011 layoffs, police went into almost total retreat. Drug dealers cheerfully gave interviews to local reporters while slinging in broad daylight. Some enterprising locals made up T-shirts celebrating the transfer of power from the cops back to the streets, [bearing slogans like] ‘It’s Our Time.’” “They let us run amok,” recalls a Camden-based ex-convict and drug addict. “… It was like Armageddon.”

In 2011 Camden’s violent crime rate was an astounding 7.3 times the national average, including 12.9 times the national average for murder, 3.2 times the national average for rapes, 9.7 times the national average for robberies, and 6.3 times the national average for assaults. In one poll, Camden was rated the second most dangerous city in the United States, with gang violence cited as a major contributing factor. The bloodiest year in Camden’s history was 2012, when 67 homicides were committed in this city of just 77,000 people. On average, someone in Camden was shot every 33 hours.

“The carnage,” wrote Mike Taibbi, “left Camden’s crime rate on par with places like Haiti after its 2010 earthquake, and with other infamous Third World hot spots, as police officials later noticed to their dismay when they studied U.N. Statistics.” Camden Police Chief J. Scott Thomson lamented that his city’s murder rate, on a per capita basis, was “somewhere between Honduras and Somalia.” “It’s gotten to the point where even in our daytime hours in this city people are scared to leave their homes,” added Thomson. Locals, meanwhile, observed that the police were “just out here to pick up the bodies.”

Along with the cuts in Camden’s police force, the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office laid off nearly one-quarter of its staff, greatly diminishing the office’s ability to follow up on police work and build a case against criminals who had been arrested.

After two years of utter chaos, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and local Camden leaders established a new Metro police department under county control which cut many of the cost excesses that the city police union had once negotiated. This reduced the average cost of employing a full-time officer from $182,168 per year to $99,605, and enabled Camden to hire more officers and begin to make a dent in the crime rate.

But crime and poverty have not, by any means, been Camden’s only serious problems. The children who grow up in fear of the mortal danger that constantly surrounds them in this city are herded, en masse, through one of the most dysfunctional education systems ever created. During the 2011-12 school year, Camden spent an astronomical $23,709 per public-school student—more than twice the average for school systems nationwide. Yet the Washington Post reports that in terms of standardized test scores, fully nine-tenths of Camden’s public schools are in New Jersey’s bottom 5%. Moreover, just 2% of the city’s high-schoolers scored above 1550 (out of a possible 2400) on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), compared with 43% of students nationally. And according to ABC News, only three high-school students in all of Camden registered SAT scores high enough to indicate that they were “college ready.” Camden’s 49.27% high-school graduation rate, meanwhile, ranks among the most abysmal of any in the United States and is far below New Jersey’s overall average of 86.46%.

Despite this pitiable track record, New Jersey’s teachers unions have thus far managed to thwart efforts to institute school voucher programs in cities like Camden. This of course is fine with Camden’s Democratic leadership, which, like Democrats across the United States, relies so heavily on financial support from such unions.

Not surprisingly, the horrific quality of life that pervades Camden has caused many of its residents to flee to more promising environs. The city’s population has plummeted from above 120,000 in the 1950s, to just 77,000 today.

This piece was posted in May 2014.


Additional Resources

Apocalypse, New Jersey: A Dispatch From America’s Most Desperate Town
By Matt Taibi
December 11, 2013

Camden on the Brink
By Jacob Laksin
February 9, 2011