Today’s Washington Post reports that a majority, a whopping 51%, of our nation’s public school students now qualify for free and reduced meals. This does not, of course, include those children whose families live just enough above the poverty line not to qualify for government assistance.
I was one of those children in the second category. My father demanded that my siblings get the education he didn’t have so that we would have better lives. I learned to read as my sister did, and I can’t remember a time in my life when I couldn’t read. From the time I began first grade, my teachers told my parents—and me—that I was exceptional, gifted, extraordinary.
The trajectory of my success in life began in those early years. Because of the attention I received then, my own child has little concept of what it means to live in poverty.
But what of all those little children whom no one perceives as extraordinary? Almost every child is born with the potential to become someone special. But rather than help all the ordinary children realize their potential, we have become a society where the wealthy point to adults like me as an excuse not to support those who haven’t been as fortunate.
I am increasingly incensed at being used as an example by people in power who wag their fingers in the faces of the poor and suggest that their plight in life is one completely of their own making.
According to the Post article, Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, has much in common with me. He was born three years after I was to a single mother in a charity hospital. But he received much of the same help as I, and he credits America for lifting him out of poverty:
Even at 8 or 9 years old, I knew that America wanted me to succeed…I was able to ride that mobility escalator in part because there were so many people, and parts of society, cheering me on. I don’t think today that low income children and their families feel that America is cheering them on. We need to fix the escalator. We fix it by recommitting ourselves to the idea of public education. We have the capacity. The question is, do we have the will?
For the moment, the answer to that question seems to be no. Republicans in Congress have consistently blocked measures to fund preschool programs. Of the 19 states with more than 50% of children receiving meal assistance, 14 voted Republican in the 2012 presidential election and are considered solidly red states. All but three are in the southern United States. Interestingly, 12 of the 19 were Confederate states or territories during the Civil War.
While these states often blame illegal immigration for our country’s financial woes, according to most estimates, only nine of these states fall in the top 20 with illegal immigrants, and many of these states are at the bottom of the list.
What is to be made of such information? I’m not sure. But I do think it bears asking some questions of our leaders and our electorate:
- Why would the elected representatives from states that most need services for poor children vote against receiving such aid?
- Why would the electorate in the states that most need aid elect leaders who refuse to seek help for the poor?
- Whose interests are being served by the legislation that is supported by the leaders of these states?
- How is this issue presented in political ads in these 19 states, and who pays for the ads that do appear?
- Why would the poor in these states, most of whom are eligible to vote, cast their ballots for those who do not serve their interests?
We as a nation should be very concerned about some facts revealed in this study: Just as it was during the Civil War, the power and the money in these states is concentrated in the hands of a few, and these few are willing to go to great lengths to keep that power and money where it is. While this system is less overt and less brutal than slavery, make no mistake—it is an insidious form of oppression.
Democracy depends on an educated electorate. Leaders who would keep money in the hands of the wealthy by ensuring that their poor citizens receive less access to education threaten the very existence of our democracy. Ironically, these are also the leaders who are the first to wave flags and accuse their opponents of being short on patriotism.
Every civilization that has allowed its poor to languish has been doomed to become an ancient civilization, remembered only in history books. So the next time our representatives in Washington are up for reelection, let us ask ourselves, Do these candidates have the will to fix the mobility escalator? Are they true patriots?
I suspect, if we all asked this question, the composition of Congress would be very different. What will you do in the face of the next wagging finger that threatens to destroy our democracy?