At the Epicenter of the Heroin Epidemic

Rebuilding Urban America Beginning with its Youth

[The] very development of modern industry must progressively turn the scale in favour of the capitalist against the working man, and that consequently the general tendency of capitalistic production is not to raise, but to sink the average standard of wages, or to push the value of labour more or less to its minimum limit. Such being the tendency of things in this system, is this saying that the working class ought to renounce their resistance against the encroachments of capital, and abandon their attempts at making the best of the occasional chances for their temporary improvement? If they did, they would be degraded to one level mass of broken wretches past salvation (Marx, 1865).

In 1865, Karl Marx presciently described the struggle between the proletariats and the bourgeoisie. Today, class struggles are readily evident in America’s inner cities. Gentrification of urban neighborhoods has led to sharp distinctions between the poor and the wealthy (Hwang & Sampson, 2014). In many cases, this has led to widespread poverty, mental health issues, and illicit drug use (Rosenblum et al., 2014; Williams & Latkin, 2007). The effects of poverty are likely most pronounced in inner city youth (Evans, 2004; Nikulina, Widom, & Czaja, 2011). Exposure to antisocial environments, poverty, and neglect compound existing challenges many inner city children face (Nikulina et al., 2011). The recent heroin epidemic that has spread across the nation only adds to the struggles of the underserved and disadvantaged (Williams & Latkin, 2007).

Troubled by the tremendous inequities I saw in Philadelphia, I chose to investigate Kensington County, the most economically disadvantaged area in the city. Because of the pervasive problems that plague this community, Kensington has become widely known as the “Badlands” of the Delaware Valley region (Rosenblum et al., 2014). For decades, this majority Puerto Rican and African American community has sat at the crossroads of a major network of underground drug trafficking that crisscrosses America. The youth in these communities experience systemic injustice, academic deficiencies, and discrimination (Harris & Fiske, 2006; Nikulina et al., 2011; Rosenblum et al., 2014). Even local schools are not immune; many charter schools in Philadelphia suffer from corruption and lack of adequate oversight (DeJarnatt, 2012). At the same time, the schools in the area serve mostly Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) Economic Disadvantaged status students who are provided with two free meals a day by the government. These “at-risk” students report more danger and feelings of danger than their counterparts residing outside urban areas (Bowen & Chapman, 1996).

Concerned about the well-being of these disadvantaged students, I initially focused only on the effects of the growing heroin epidemic on the children of Kensington. My preliminary research question was, “What are the effects of the heroin epidemic on children in North Philadelphia’s Kensington County as reported by professionals who work with them?” After participant observation and my first interview, I realized that the problems facing Kensington went far beyond a single substance. I then took a more expansive approach to my research questions and focused on two interacting levels acting in the community: the micro (the immediate environment of the child) and the macro (the surrounding cultural and political context). I investigated two salient questions relevant to the community: 1. What are the effects of Kensington’s environment on the children who live there as reported by professionals who work with them? 2. How might we ameliorate the systemic problems facing Kensington? Kensington and similar underserved inner city communities have been left in the shadows by policy makers and the public far too long. But to rejuvenate these communities, we need to start with the youth, the most vulnerable population who arguably have the greatest potential to change the course of their lives and that of others in their community. The aim of this research project was to synthesize, integrate, and build on existing research regarding at-risk youth and the systemic forces that affect them. The hope is to understand the challenges facing Kensington’s youth and discover means of breaking the cycle of poverty.

In addressing the second research question, I investigated Kensington County within a sociopolitical context. The many compounding challenges facing the area indicate its potential as a microcosm of all the likely forces that could work against the creation of an ideal American community that would provide opportunities for economic mobility while embracing cultural diversity. Successfully solving the problems in Kensington could serve as a powerful example of American ingenuity and unity. Yet, it is hard to neglect the cultural polarization and disaffect spreading from inner city communities to far beyond urban city limits. There is growing recognition that the discontent once only felt by the poor has infected the more politically influential working class (Inglehart & Norris, 2016). In fact, the heroin epidemic in the United States serves as a symptomatic indicator of sociopolitical tides crossing the Western world (see Inglehart & Norris, 2016). According to an analysis of the past century, the demographics of the heroin epidemic have changed considerably from a minority-centered problem to one that now effects primarily non-Hispanic whites in rural and suburban areas (Cicero, Ellis, Surratt, & Kurtz, 2014). Rising inequality and economic stagnation are beginning to strain relations among communities just as it had one-sidedly been between the poor and the rest of America. If we can find and implement effective means of resolving the systemic issues facing Kensington, we might just be able to solve similar problems facing communities across the nation.


Interviewee Recruitment & Transcription

Recruitment of interviewees were conducted using purposive sampling. Three groups were targeted: school administrators, teachers, and experts on education. They were coded “school administrator,” “school teacher,” and “academia,” respectively, for the groups they represent. To locate interviewees, a comprehensive search of public schools in the Kensington area was conducted. Using Google Maps, schools were located within a three-mile radius of Kensington Avenue and East Somerset Street, an area widely known for its open drug markets. This location was targeted because my initial research question was focused on the effects of the heroin epidemic. E-mails of the potential interviewees were then searched using available public records on the websites of each school ( If e-mail addresses were unavailable, potential participants were contacted through LinkedIn and Facebook if their accounts could be located. In the end, sixteen Kensington-area public school principals were contacted. One responded and agreed to an interview. Less public information was available on teachers in each school. Through the researcher’s personal contacts, one school teacher was contacted and agreed to an interview. Experts on education were identified from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Policy & Practice website ( Three professors who work on issues related to urban youth or the inner-cities were contacted of which one responded and agreed to an interview. All interviewees gave permission to be named.

In total, three interviews were conducted. Two interviews were conducted in person and one was conducted over the phone. Interviews were semi-structured and based on an interview guide. Each interview was recorded and transcribed. To facilitate the transcription process, Adobe Audition was used to slow the playback of each interview.

Interview Questions

Since all interviewees reported regular contact with inner-city students, they were all asked similar, if not identical questions to the ones listed here:

1. Would you mind talking about your students and backgrounds from which they come?

2. How does poverty and violence affect the lives of the students you work with?

3. To what extent does the heroin epidemic affect your students?

4. What do you think policy makers should do to help alleviate some these issues?

Follow-up questions and elaborations were asked in response to the answers interviewees gave.

Participant Observation

Participant observation was conducted in and around the Kensington Health Sciences Academy (KHSA). All students at KHSA are considered Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) Economically Disadvantaged, receiving free breakfast and lunch. Observations were also taken of the walk from the Somerset Public Transit Station located directly at the intersection of Kensington Avenue and East Somerset Street to KHSA. Field notes were written within an hour of visiting the field sites. Notes were written chronologically and the researcher’s commentary was clearly separated from objective observations.

Data Analysis

The data was then qualitatively coded using Nvivo software and emergent themes were identified based on frequency and the interviewee’s emphasis. Topics that were underscored repeatedly by the interviewees were considered salient. Thematic nodes were then created in the Nvivo software accordingly. This identification of important issues and anecdotes enabled the formulation of coding trees for each research question. Sub-nodes were created for topics that were related to larger themes or issues. Relationships among concepts were identified by comparing interviewee’s responses and through further research into the existing literature on related issues. The interconnected concepts helped to generate a formative research model on which subsequent findings were based.


My investigations at the micro level focused on the environmental factors shaping the minds and lives of Kensington children. Research focused at the macro level centered around systemic issues that were not readily observable but were, nevertheless, important to the creation of opportunity and the perception of empowerment by society-at-large. Over the course of the research project, my formative research model became increasingly intricate as emergent themes gained detail and nuance. Figures in the following pages list exemplary quotes and illustrative models.

The Micro Level: Kensington County’s Environmental Effects

The environmental effects of poverty and violence have been well documented. This study on Kensington’s youth confirmed the many challenges that underserved urban communities face. Five informative themes emerged from my interviews and participant observation: antisocial environment, discrimination, poverty, schools, and household responsibilities. In Kensington County, these five variables were found to significantly shape the lives of children residing in these communities.

Antisocial Environment

Violence, abuse, neglect, ready access to illicit substances, the presence of firearms, and frequent incarceration of family or friends are among the elements that characterize the antisocial environment of Kensington. According to interviewee Principal James Williams, these environmental factors “allow them to make poor choices” and can, in some cases, lead to mental health issues (J. Williams, personal communication, October 6, 2016)*. Exposure to death and severe human suffering, especially at young age, can lead to “a lot of traumatized children” in these neighborhoods states Professor Andrew Fussner, a Professor at the University of Pennsylvania (A. Fussner, personal communication, November 2, 2016).


Based on participant observations, more than ninety percent of the children in Kensington communities are African American or Hispanic. Their teachers and administrators recognize that race poses an additional challenge where “failure is not an option” because of the “two marks against them…they’re minorities and they live in poverty” (Williams, personal communication, 2016).


Half of the children in Philadelphia live in or below the poverty line (Fussner, personal communication, 2016). Household poverty can cause substantial strains on adequate nutrition, housing, and clothing. Lack of sufficient heating during the long winter months of Philadelphia also poses a serious challenge for many families.


Every interviewee underscored the importance of schools in the community. They serve as essential sanctuaries for Kensington children—an escape from the struggles they may be facing at home. Schools also provide food, clean clothing, and heat for Kensington children. Teachers and school administers are often the only “cheerleader[s]” these students have (Williams, personal communication, 2016). Educational institutions in these communities also provide the only doors to legal opportunities for socioeconomic advancement. Similar opportunities available outside of established educational institutions are associated mostly, if not entirely, with illicit activities.

Schools also serve as the primary channel through which the government, nonprofits, and corporations can provide resources and support for urban youth. Public and nonprofit programs that were explicitly named by the interviewees include City Year, Gear Up, Head Start, the Career and Technical Education (CTE) program, the Distributive Education Clubs of America (DECA), and partnerships with Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania. For profit initiatives include programs with CVS and hospitals in the local Kensington area. These programs were all highly endorsed by the interviewees. Each program targets niche needs in the community and provides resources, mentorship, and support for children in Kensington. These programs and initiatives have all demonstrated positive effects on academic achievement, emotional health, and future employment prospects. A common theme among all programs was an emphasis on career and technical education. Head Start, City Year, Gear Up, and the CTE Program were all created in the hopes that children in these programs would graduate from high school and join the productive workforce with college being a desired though not entirely necessary goal. DECA and similar community-fostering clubs were found to be highly effective. In fact, one student of high school teacher Denise Magasich said that “DECA was not only life changing, but also lifesaving” (D. Magasich, personal communication, October 24, 2016). School educators and administrators also saw corporate initiatives and partnerships as highly attractive opportunities for their students to gain expertise in a trade and earn employment.

Household Responsibilities

As children age, the toll of household responsibilities becomes a serious burden on the lives of many Kensington children. Fifteen- or sixteen-year-old boys and girls are often told that they are the “man [or woman] of the house” and are thus responsible for their siblings (Magasich, personal communication, 2016). Tasks for these adolescents include many parental responsibilities such as waking siblings, feeding them, and walking them to school. Girls at this same age are also faced with the tempting option of dating older adolescents, becoming pregnant, and ultimately relying on Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Doing so would provide seemingly adequate resources without the need to seek employment or any further education. Adolescent girls who choose to become mothers are faced with even greater challenges if they do wish to seek further educational attainment or better employment options.

The Macro Level: Addressing Systemic Problems in Kensington


            For the county of Kensington, three important variables related to the government were identified: opportunity, accountability, and perceived empowerment. Funding for programs and initiatives like DECA and the CTE program should be maintained. The publicizing of available resources and opportunities was found to be important. According to Fussner, the financial accountability of school administrations is a major issue plaguing the School District of Philadelphia. Political favoritism highly influences the allocation of resources, leading to corruption and conflicts of interest. Because of longstanding financial problems in the District, the municipality of Philadelphia no longer controls the financial levers that fund Philadelphia’s public schools. The District’s finances and its primary regulatory body are now controlled by the state in Harrisburg, the capital of Pennsylvania. It was also found that 72 cents of every dollar allocated to the District goes directly to the school administration and not to the students. Lastly, overcoming perceived disempowerment by existing governance poses a tremendous challenge in the Kensington community. In many cases, students are “angry” and onlookers are “scared” that we are allowing their “humanity to be eroded away” (Williams, personal communication, 2016). Yet, “the government has turned its back on [poverty]” and “[students] know that they when they get out of school, there’s nothing for them” (Fussner, personal communication, 2016).


            Nonprofits serve three main objectives for Kensington students: programs and interventions, social support, and mentorship. These services supplement existing programs funded by the state of Pennsylvania and the municipality of Philadelphia. Programs that are created by nonprofit organizations act on the micro level, enabling the academic and psychological support Kensington children need.


            Private sector investments in the human capital of Kensington pays “wonderful” dividends for the community (Williams, personal communication, 2016). Partnerships between schools and corporations have enabled career- and technically-focused Kensington schools to become training centers for future paramedics, nurses, physician assistants, and dental hygienists. Through its partnerships, KHSA has been provided with dental equipment, three life-size and anatomically accurate mannequins, and paramedical tools. Students who are trained at KHSA can apply for apprenticeship programs at CVS and local hospitals. These opportunities also lead to further career advancement. For example, Temple University provides the option for these students to pursue pharmacy school after an externship at CVS.

Please see the pdf of this article for the Figures.

Defeatism: A Summative Theme

From the analysis of three interviews and participant observation data emerged defeatism, a disaffected mindset characterized by despair, division, and discontent. This conceptualization began to formulate after my repeated inquiries into strategies for addressing problems facing Kensington. In many cases, even the self-evident answer of education came under derision: “Over a third of my kids are special ed, they don’t move academically the same way that a regular ed kid would. The others are just not diagnosed” (Williams, personal communication, 2016). This unexpected finding of defeat profoundly shaped my perspective on how to best address the problems facing Kensington and inner-city communities like it.

At the micro level, defeatism emerges from repeated exposure to antisocial environments, discrimination, poverty, ineffective schooling, and burdensome household responsibilities. The complex interactions of these variables can lead students to choose any number of pain-relieving but consequential negative decisions. Further compounded by the perceived lack of legal economic opportunities or career advancement, many urban adolescents “develop an appetite for drugs” out of necessity (Fussner, personal communication, 2016). After all, “They know that when they get out of school, there’s nothing for them” (Fussner, personal communication, 2016)


The Defeatism Model and the alternative Empowerment Model emerged out of an analysis of the interacting forces acting on Kensington’s children. The models illustrated in Figures 4 and 5 couple the various factors into an illustrative network whereby policies, interventions, and decisions made within and among macro level entities play a direct role on the various salient themes acting in micro level cycle. The micro level cycle subsequently acts on individuals and households by posing either risks or buffers against the successful development of inner-city children. According to my research, systemic issues coupled with defeatism at the micro level nearly eliminates opportunity for socioeconomic mobility, whereas successful systemic support in spite of micro level challenges can still lead to more opportunities for socioeconomic advancement.

At the systemic level, a macro level cycle among government institutions, nonprofits, and corporations creates a shroud of detachment despite their influential role in determining the nature of policies and programs that affect the lives of urban youth. Nonprofits are likely to be the most salient and familiar, providing support and care for many children in Kensington. The children’s views of the government and the private sector were more difficult to characterize and may be less consequential. Instead, it is the downstream effects of strategic policy measures and investments that have the most drastic effects on the lives of marginalized urban children and what they perceive as their place in the world.

 Figure 4. The Defeatism Model. The Defeatism Model illustrates how systemic issues coupled with the challenges already faced by inner-city youth can reinforce defeatism, leading to minimal if any opportunities for economic or social advancement.

Figure 4. The Defeatism Model. The Defeatism Model illustrates how systemic issues coupled with the challenges already faced by inner-city youth can reinforce defeatism, leading to minimal if any opportunities for economic or social advancement.


While they may not be able to directly provide opportunities for economic advancement, governance at the municipal, state, and federal levels can create more favorable economic conditions for job creation. Policies that incentivize the private sector to invest in underserved schools would provide an excellent means of creating both economic opportunities for students and technically trained workforces for companies. Partnerships like the one among KHSA, CVS, and Temple University should also be encouraged. These types of initiatives would provide much needed opportunities for socioeconomic mobility in urban communities. They would also create a more productive, engaged, and trained citizenry in urban city communities. Reforms of this sort could have ripple effects across these communities, breaking the cycle of poverty and catalyzing new cycles of socioeconomic advancement. This coupling of systemic support and individual empowerment would create a powerful realignment in the socioeconomic ladder with the potential to make the American Dream available to all. 

Lastly, at the systemic level, my research suggests that greater financial accountability metrics in school administrations should be implemented to rein in unnecessary spending and encourage investment of more taxpayer dollars into the students rather than the pockets of administrators. Jurisdiction over the School District of Philadelphia should also be returned from the state to the city of Philadelphia. Despite the benefits of decentralized control over the District, policy makers and educators in Philadelphia’s municipality would be more familiar with the challenges facing individual schools. At least some degree of financial regulation should still be decentralized. Financial expenditures and conflicts of interests should be made clear in annual budget reports published by school administrators and made available to the public.

 Figure 5. The Empowerment Model. The Empowerment Model illustrates the elements necessary for large-scale socioeconomic mobility to take place in American inner-cities. To promote opportunities for economic mobility, systemic support must spawn from macro level entity initiatives while children need to perceive empowerment at local and societal levels.

Figure 5. The Empowerment Model. The Empowerment Model illustrates the elements necessary for large-scale socioeconomic mobility to take place in American inner-cities. To promote opportunities for economic mobility, systemic support must spawn from macro level entity initiatives while children need to perceive empowerment at local and societal levels.



The small sample size of interviewees places a severe limitation on the generalizability of these results. Yet, data on elements of the Defeatism Model were already beginning to reach saturation. That is, some key themes emerged consistently in different interviews.  At the micro level these themes included: antisocial environment, discrimination, and poverty. Every interviewee mentioned similar if not the same forces acting under those three broader themes.


The micro level factors that I identified adds to a large body of existing literature on the effects of poverty, violence, parental drug use, and neglect. With the possible exception of the important role household responsibilities play in the lives of Kensington youth, all the factors I found were consistent with previous work on the subject, including the value of social support and school connectedness. The factors that emerged at the systemic level were also largely confirmatory. School governance should increase oversight, exhibit transparency, and reduce conflicts of interest. Patterns of segregation and racism were consistent with the idea of perceived disempowerment. Unlike previous research models, however, my model for defeat and empowerment places as much emphasis on governance as the role of nonprofits and corporations. Future studies should investigate the precise policy incentives that could promote greater collaboration among all three entities. Especially with the increasing emphasis on social impact within corporations, researchers should study the effectiveness of these initiatives including their interaction with the programs of nonprofits and the government.

Further study is also required on all components within the macro level cycle as well as the role of schools and household responsibilities. Likewise, gender and racial differences require further investigation, especially as to how they interact with the forces at the systemic level. To what extent does the sociopolitical standing of people within certain ethnic or socioeconomic categorizations influence the engagement of public officials towards that group? How can we increase the political and cultural influence of the poor without cultural backlash (see Inglehart & Norris, 2016)? How can we promote empathy and mutual understanding between the poor and the elite? These are all open questions suggested by the Defeatism Model.

Marx may have been prescient about the current state of America, but his premonitions will by no means define the nation we know it can become. My research demonstrates that even without proper governance, private enterprise can provide not only products and services, but also “life-saving” opportunities for achievement and empowerment (Magasich, personal communication, 2016). The dearth of research on the role of corporations in underserved urban communities should not in any way diminish the importance of the private sector in the creation of opportunity. After all, governments and nonprofits can only do so much when wealth is largely accumulated at the top of corporate ladders.

Kensington has served as a powerful reminder of American potential. Already within school classrooms, private sector initiatives, a socially conscious populace, and hardworking teachers are enabling miracles. If we can only bring to light the most effective elements of policy and practice, Kensington and communities like it can demonstrate to both disaffected Americans and to the world that populism has no place in human society. Instead, collaboration and empathy across society’s arbitrary boundaries can truly make for a more prosperous and peaceful world.

In conclusion, despite the important role of the individual in overcoming adversity, my research suggests that context may play a more influential role than once thought. According to Fussner, for example, the programs and interventions that have been tested over the years have yielded little to no success (see Figure 5). Perhaps educators, researchers, and policy makers have been focusing too intensely on the children rather the system, placing the burden of guilt on the lowest of the low rather than on the officials themselves. Social psychologists have long studied the influence of the “Just-world Hypothesis” or “the belief in a just world” whereby we actively seek to perceive the world in a “manageable and predictable” fashion, enabling us to justify injustice if that is what is necessary (Lerner, 1980). Those in the ivory tower and those in the “cubbies” of public administration who are often detached and disillusioned by the issues facing urban youth need to recognize that the cycles of poverty will not and cannot be broken by individuals in isolation but rather by the collective action of the public and the public officials who serve us. The miracles that happen every day in the schools of Kensington will stay miracles unless there is widespread recognition that the burden of guilt is on all of us. So long as we remain silent, we will continue to be complicit.


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* References in parentheses including the phrase “personal communication” are quotes from interviewees, all of whom gave permission to be named.