A school district in my hometown has decided to offer free breakfast and lunch to high poverty families. This seems like something everyone could get behind. Kids having food during the summer certainly makes me happy, anyway, as I used to work with children who only ate at school.
I read a reaction, however, when someone said she met a woman who was saying she had bought a $100 pool pass, so her children could swim between free meals. This was met with indignant outrage from a variety of people. If she can afford a pool pass, then why should she be able to have free food for her children! At the taxpayer’s expense! After all, she has $100, the lazy slug!
My blood boiled.
I haven’t told many people this story, but I will now, because it’s important. When I was teaching, I was supporting my husband and daughter. My husband was going to school, studying all hours, picking up restaurant shifts when he could. I taught full time. I made enough to scrape by, though my family would have easily qualified for free lunch. We had virtually no luxuries; we found every free way in the city in entertain ourselves, wore the same clothes until they fell to pieces, and at the lowest point, we started to buy discounted food from a church.
Do you know how humiliating it is to stand in line, holding a laundry basket, to get discounted food from a church? It was worth the weekly trip, as $40 would get us basic staples and some cheap meat remnants. It wasn’t good, but it was edible. The people handing it out were kind, and everyone in line just needed help. I knew other people who got it, too. Everyone we spoke to in line was employed, working hard, often at multiple jobs, trying as best they good in a terrible economy with no hope in sight. They weren’t lazy. They were unlucky. But deep inside, no matter why you need the help, you feel poor. You feel worthless.
We had a small account set aside for spare change, odd jobs, and extra tips. We’d save that money until we had enough to take our daughter to the zoo, to buy a Groupon to the museum, go out for cheap meal, buy a treat at the Asian market. We were very careful. Sometimes, it was worth the money to give M a new experience, to visit friends, to not feel poor for a day. Sometimes, it even cost a whole $100, and I don’t regret it at all.
Maybe this woman did the same thing. Maybe she wants a safe place for her children to socialize, to stay out of trouble, to avoid gangs, to get exercise and not rot away watching daytime television. Maybe she held her shoes together with superglue and ate the same leftovers every day to save up that $100. Maybe getting that taxpayer-funded lunch let her get a pass so that her children could have some fun in the summer. Hard as it may be to believe, children in poverty also like to swim, play and an enjoyable summer, too.
And maybe she is milking the system. Maybe she’s a leech. But her kids are the ones with pool pass, and they’re not milking the system. They’re just kids. And as a taxpayer, I’d rather have the $100 go to let some children spend the summer exercising and playing than to pay for a war I don’t believe in or a ballot measure that’s too ridiculous to pass.
I’m not going to judge a person because somehow she managed to find $100 and spent it on something other than dry beans and rice, or some other elitist “taxpayer approved” bullshit. She gave her children a great gift–a safe place to exercise and play, which seems well worth what she paid. Her children deserve a happy summer as much as a kid who isn’t below the poverty line.
I’ve been on both sides of that line. I’m on the upswing now, but it was hard. I remember standing in that line with my basket, and I’d do it again if it meant I could save $100 to buy my child a pool pass, too. Maybe it would have brought me the same derision that this woman did; I know our tax refund certainly did. (That tax refund fed us for six months, though, so thank you!)
I’d still have done the same.