by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi
A recent bulletin from the Southern Education Foundation reports that, for the first time in fifty years, a majority of students in US public schools come from low-income families. The data, collected for the 2012–13 school year, considers a family low income on the basis of whether the children register for the federal program that provides free and reduced-price lunches to students. Figures show that 51% of students in US public schools, ranging from pre-kindergarten through the twelfth grade, were eligible for the lunch program. While poor students are spread across the US, the highest rates of poor and low-income families are concentrated in the Southern and Western states. In twenty-one states, at least half the public school children were eligible for free and reduced-price lunches. In Mississippi, more than 70% of students were from low-income families. In Illinois, 50%—one of every two students—were low-income.
Michael A. Rebell of the Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers College at Columbia University, noted that the poverty rate has been increasing even as the economy has improved. He emphasizes that to give children a meaningful education, “we have to do things that overcome the damages of poverty. We have to meet their health needs, their mental health needs, after-school programs, summer programs, parent engagement, early-childhood services. These are the so-called wraparound services. Some people think of them as add-ons. They’re not. They’re imperative.”
Hunger is not only a health issue for children, but also a challenge to the process of learning itself. Hungry kids are more likely to have trouble focusing at school, less likely to do their homework, and to be less inclined to pursue opportunities for learning outside the classroom, for example, by going to the local library. Hungry children are also more prone to have behavioral and emotional problems.
A new report by the US Census Bureau, released on January 28, found that the number of children living with married parents who receive food stamps almost doubled between 2007 and 2014: “In 2014, an estimated 16 million children, or about one in five, received food stamp assistance compared with the roughly 9 million children, or one in eight, that received this form of assistance prior to the recession.”
In its annual report on poverty last fall, the US census bureau found that one in five children lives in poverty. According to the UN, out of 35 economically developed countries, the US ranks 34th when it comes to relative child poverty (defined as living in a household in which disposable income, when adjusted for family size and composition, is less than 50% of the national median income). In this ranking, the US is trailed only by Romania but surpassed by Italy, Greece, Spain, Bulgaria, and Latvia. The Scandinavian countries—Iceland, Finland, Norway, Denmark, and Sweden—are high up in the charts.
In 2013, 44% of US children under the age 18 lived in low-income families— those with an income below $47,000 a year for a family of four. That’s equivalent to 31.8 million children, according to a report from the National Center for Children in poverty at Columbia University. The center also found that about 22% of US children live in poor families, with income below $24,000 a year.
Although roughly 48 million people, or one out of seven Americans, had been enrolled in the SNAP program—or food stamps— since the recession of 2007, Congress cut $8.6bn from food stamps a year ago. With a radically conservative majority now in charge of both houses of Congress further cuts to the food stamps program likely lie ahead. Food stamp eligibility rules are tightening in states across the country, causing up to 1 million current recipients to lose benefits and resulting in “serious hardship for many.”
Underlying the antagonism to food stamps and other nutritional assistance programs is the premise that those who depend on them are too indolent to support themselves and thus seek to exploit the bounty of the federal government. But Dave Reaney, the executive director of the Bay Area Food Bank in Theodore, Alabama, turns the focus of the argument from the adults to the children:
You can’t blame the child, no matter what the circumstances. A two-year old can’t take care of themselves. They might not like the fact that the parents aren’t able to take care of the child and wish they’d change, that might be their opinion, but they won’t blame the kid. Even the toughest, hard-nosed, anti-government-funding person would say: ‘Well, kids ought to be able to eat good.’ We try to make sure that they understand that whether you like it or not, [food stamps] help kids and kids can’t help themselves. So stop worrying about the parent, and start worrying about the kid and then maybe we will get along better.
This world needs to change for the better fast.