What the increase in kids with subsidized school lunches has to do with making society like professional sports

Day after day, people suffer financially outside the public view. They lose their jobs. Their unemployment benefits expire. They can’t pay their mortgage, and if they sell the house, they’ll still owe money to the bank. They move in with relatives or into their car. They scrimp on food for their families. They forego medical treatment or don’t fill their prescriptions. 

Despite the occasional feature article, especially around the December holiday season, those of us with good jobs don’t have firsthand experience of poverty or near poverty and its negative impact on the health and spirits of people. The pictures of the increase in poverty and near poverty in the country come to us in broad strokes: statistics and studies.

Another one of those reports full of numbers graced the front page of today’s New York Times, a disturbing in-depth analysis by the Times of the Department of Agriculture’s school lunch program data. 

The bad news is not surprising given the high rate of unemployment, but it is still shocking: The number of students who eat subsidized lunches rose to 21 million last school year from 18 million since the 2006-2007 school year. All 50 states have experienced increases, and 11 had increases of 25 percent or more.

As the Times notes, kids in families with incomes at 130 percent of the poverty level or less are eligible for free school meals. That’s $29,055 for a family of four.  Children in a four-member household with income up to $41,348 are eligible to pay 40 cents for a school lunch.

Let’s focus on the hypothetical life of one of these children, say a fifth grade boy in Roseville, a St. Paul, Minnesota suburb where the Times reports that the number students getting subsidized lunches rose to 44 percent this fall from 29 percent five years ago. Maybe the father has lost his job and the mother is only working part-time now. They are in the process of selling their furniture and most of their things, including the Xbox that the boy loves to play with his friends. They’re going to all live in one room of grandma’s apartment. Imagine the boy’s mixture of shame, anger, fear and frustration when he tells his friends he can’t go to movies with them. Or think how his father must feel when he tells the boy that travel soccer is out.

Or think of an African-American first-grader who’s always gotten free lunches because both her parents have always been in the last-hired, first-fired pool of unskilled workers. She has never had a single extra lesson, never had a vacation, shares a bed with an older sister and is lucky to get free meals at school, free afterschool at the Y and free healthcare through a state program. But often towards the end of the month, the family’s dinner consists of baloney sandwiches or oatmeal, and the family has saved nothing for her college.

I could go on and on spinning hypothetical facts that apply to one or to hundreds of individual children. What I want all OpEdge readers to do is imagine just one of these children who only recently started getting free or subsidized lunches, create a realistic life for that child and try to put yourself in the shoes of that one child, try to feel that child’s emotions. Try to evaluate that child’s likely future, given that she/he will have to compete with children whose parents spend enormous sums for music, chess, dance, sports and art lessons, tutoring, specialty summer camps, SAT prep course and, perhaps most importantly of all, for a financially secure and emotionally stable home life. Don’t think of the occasional genius or athlete that makes it out of poverty, think of the average kid and her/his family.  Think how you would feel if you had the rug pulled from underneath you, or never had a rug to begin with.

Now multiply your imagining of one child by 3 million times to represent those who have gone on the school lunch program in the past five years, and then by 21 million times to represent all of the children getting free or subsidized lunches, and you get an idea of the pain and suffering that exists in the United States today.

We can conceive of all societies as games which produce winners and losers. There are always a lot fewer winners than losers and the winners always get more money, recognition and power than the losers do. But in the current epoch—what I call the Age of Reagan—we are taking winning and losing to an extreme. 

We see it in how much we focus on the competitive aspects of elections as opposed to the issues, focusing on who has raised more money, who won a debate and who is ahead in the polls and straw votes.

We see it in the dominance of reality TV, which pits people against each other in winner-and-loser contests involving singing, dancing, remembering trivia or lyrics, scavenger hunts, attracting members of the opposite sex, running a business, survival living or losing weight.

We see it in the media focus on celebrities, who for the most part are the biggest winners, near-winners, and former-winners of society.

But most of all we see it in our economic system in this Age of Reagan, which has gutted the middle class and produced a nation of rich and poor.

I don’t have a problem with a society which produces winners and losers. I like to play, and I like to win.

My objection is that currently the winners get too much and the legions of losers are growing even as their piece of the pie continues to shrink.

What we need to do is take the games analogy one step further.  Consider any professional sports team.  The best players get far more money than the near-great, average player or hanger-on. Often they get such outsized amounts that an economic analysis shows that the owners are overpaying them compared to the other players. 

But everyone else—all the losers—do pretty well in professional sports. Sure, A-Rod got paid $32 million to play baseball in 2011, but the lowest paid player made a cool $414,000.  And they all get premium healthcare coverage.

I’m not saying that everyone should make $414,000 a year. What I am saying is that we should lower the price of losing by expanding government programs, and then pay for those programs by raising taxes a lot on the wealthy and a little on the merely well off. To deal with the current economic challenges, we have to extend unemployment benefits, expand free and low-cost healthcare programs, subsidize banks that revise mortgage terms so that people stay in their own homes and expand public resources such as libraries and after-school programs. Long-term, the best way to make sure that, while winners get more even, losers thrive is to encourage unionization of all industries, raise the minimum wage and pump money into public schools.

Childhood is supposed to prepare children for the adult world. Nowadays, whether it’s baseball, soccer, chess or dance,  we give out participation trophies and ribbons to every kid, and tell them that even if they didn’t win the championship they’re still winners because they dared to compete and they played by the rules. 

Translate that approach to the real world and you have a society in which we let people play to win, but make sure that even the losers survive and have the basics of food, shelter, health care and education.

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