Taking food from the mouths of babes and calling it patriotism

There’s been quite the storm brewing between the haves and the have-nots in this country. While it would be easy to point to the stock market crash in 2008 and the simultaneous housing market collapse as convenient epicenters of distopic fusion — best encapsulated in the easy “1 percent” propaganda — this storm has been brewing long before the bottom fell out. And it is nowhere more evident than the unlikely battleground of the school lunch line.

Back in the darkest days of the recession we started seeing reports of schools that were serving cold cheese or PB&J sandwiches to kids who couldn’t pay for lunch. Or worse, reports that school administrators were singling kids out to sit out lunchtime all together, all because their parents couldn’t pay — even for reduced-cost lunches. Unfortunately, the story is only heartbreaking to some. Remember back in 2009 when parents in Albuquerque applauded schools for yanking kids out of line?

Some Albuquerque parents have tearfully pleaded with school board members to stop singling out their children because they’re poor, while others have flooded talk radio shows thanking the district for imposing a policy that commands parental responsibility.

In January, a Salt Lake City elementary school got into hot water for literally snatching food out of kids hands. Their crime? Their lunch accounts had negative balances. While the kids were given fruit and milk to eat instead, that’s a pittance compared to the lasting humiliation those kids received. The same thing happened to me once, as a kid, and some 30-odd years later the sting of that moment still cuts deep.

You know, poverty is not the exclusive province of “bad” people. And there is no correlation between being poor and being a bad parent. Just like being wealthy has nothing to do with whether or not you are callous fuckwit.

Now we’re rounding the corner on a new fresh hell in the battle over school lunches — of which 17.5 million kids receive free or reduced-cost lunches nationwide. (In 2012, the Clark County School District had the third highest rate of free and reduced-cost lunches, 57 percent.) Conservatives are adopting the Dickensian approach to school lunch programs — work for it.

From ThinkProgress:

Last April, a state lawmaker in West Virginia, Ray Canterbury (R), argued during a school lunch debate that it’d be a “good idea” to have “the kids work for their lunches.” He proposed that they take out the trash, sweep the hallways or mow the lawns in order to earn their food. …

So, what’s really behind the antipathy toward government-subsidized school lunches?

It stitches together a panoply of notions that are popular with conservatives: that the government spends too much money helping the poor, that free lunches are emblematic of wealth redistribution and that families (rather than the state) should look after children. It’s also a dog-whistle to the idea, which has grown popular on the right in the Obama era, that too many able-bodied people are lazy and mooching off the federal government. A corollary to this is the claim that liberals don’t value the dignity of work. Wound together, “no free school lunches” serves as a rallying cry that plays to the GOP base’s primal ideological convictions.

The idea that kids should work was also test-driven by Newt Gingrich during the 2012 GOP presidential primaries: he suggested that schools fire their janitors and have kids clean.

Nothing teaches four-year-olds about fiscal responsibility like cleaning toilets. I mean, sure, kids do have tiny hands and can really get into those hard-to-reach spots, but then they’ll probably just work up an appetite and it becomes a vicious circle — amirite? Of course, if you got the federal government to recognize janitorial services as physical education …

When did the bootstraps mythology supplant reason? When did we become a country that equates taking food out of the mouths of babes with patriotism? Because to hear these conservatives talk, it is clear that they view poverty as a social construct. Any perceived failings of those in poverty are the direct result of, essentially, a lack of adherence to a perceived patriotic duty to live by self-determined pluck — and absolutely no aid whatsoever. Except inherited wealth. That’s all they need! And tax-payer-funded public works like roads and hospitals. But that’s all! And tax breaks!

You want to see fewer kids signing up for free or reduced-cost lunches? You want lunch account balances paid in full? Create jobs! Raise the minimum wage! Stop cutting programs — like housing voucher programs that have reduced homelessness by 75 percent in some places! Support families by passing legislation requiring paid sick days!

Until then, maybe those of us who are able can follow this guy’s lead and pay the tab of a kid in need.

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