Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Standing in Line

As part of my volunteer efforts at the local food bank, I'm doing interviews for the National Hunger Survey, organized by Feeding America (you probably remember it as America's Second Harvest, they recently changed the name). They do these every 5 years, to assess what's going on at America's food banks, soup kitchens, and homeless shelters, in getting food to people who can't afford to buy all the food they need.

So every few days, a small team of us, wearing our Food Bank T-shirts, shows up by appointment at a church, or a volunteer center, or somewhere similar (usually a church); and we use statistical techniques to randomly choose a small number of people from the group standing in line; and then we ask them questions. Some of the questions are standard census data: how old are you? Who else lives with you? Do you own or rent? Do you have a job? Then there are the questions that break your heart: How often in the last month have you gone hungry so the kids could eat full meals? How often have the kids gone hungry? Can you afford to eat balanced meals? Have you had to choose between buying food and paying rent? Buying food and paying for medicine? Buying food and paying for heat?

I've asked these questions in a tent on a sunny day, in a cold church in the rain (with buckets on the stairs to catch the drips from the leaking roof), in offices walled with unpainted pressboard, and standing with people in line, out of doors
on a cold rainy morning. I don't know what mental image you have of the people who get free groceries; but I'm talking to Everyman. The landscaper with four kids, whose salary isn't quite enough to cover the groceries. The couple in their 70's, retired working man, own their house free and clear; their pensions and Social Security just aren't enough any more. The women with children in tow. Everyman's complexion tends to be darker than the American "norm", and he doesn't always speak English; but there are white people in those lines too, and only one of the people I've interviewed wasn't a citizen. (Sure, they tell us; we aren't ICE, we're the food bank.)

What are we doing to ourselves? To each other? We are the richest country on earth and we let people starve? We let children starve?

I don't have an answer for this, but when I was growing up, a family could live on one man's wages. How did we blow that away? How do we get it back?


  1. It's a great question ("How did we blow that away?"). Elizabeth Warren's "The Two Income Trap" answers this, but leaves a larger question -- what made us so fearful of having our kids in an average school. The answer is more than only the simple one that we'd like them to "suceed". Consider: many of the succesful people around us did not attend an elite primary school. The nation with the most sucessful education as measured in international tests does not start formal education until age 7, and has little homework for their kids.

    Americans in general don't know much about what causes success of the most profound kind -- realizing one's potential.
    Instead we have a kind of popular notion of enforced learning with much homework leading to competence. But this idea is poorly examined, and tragic. It's like finding out that vitamen C in oranges prevents a disease, and then eliminating all other types of food as a policy (ok, hyperbolic, but clear I hope).

  2. It isn't the schools. It's the parents. The parents want someone else to make sure their kids do well. The Oakland public school system is supposed to be appalling, and yet my neighbor's two kids went all the way through it and are now both in college, one at Davis, one in Reno. Their parents were actively involved with the schools, and made sure they did their homework. The kids who fail, in general, have parents who are not engaged and not involved, for whatever reason.

    We built this country on schools that never tried to teach more than reading, writing, and arithmetic.

  3. Anonymous3:23 PM

    I'm a mom of an 11 y.o., who worked for a while in the NYC Public Schools as a parent coordinator, and was an active volunteer before/after that.

    I have a few thoughts here.

    Why aren't all parents engaged?

    1) In many cases, both parents work, with inflexible work schedules and no other family support nearby, maybe add in a commute, also potentially responsibilities to care for an ill mother/father -- they barely have time to get food on the table, get the kids in bed on time, much less go over all the kids' homework, even if they wish to. And unfortunately most after school programs don't try to do homework help support -- very poor coordination with their school. (Something that KIPP has addressed, for example.) And many are single working parents.

    The above was me for two years -- practically killed me to be supportive on top of everything else. I was, but it wasn't easy. Now I'm unemployed -- oh joy!

    2) Add to this many of the parents aren't confident in their ability to help their children ( and don't want to risk losing face/embarrassment) and might also come from cultures where it isn't considered appropriate to be american-style 'engaged.'

    Also, Hedera and Hal, anyone paying attention in the last decade has seen the following, in terms of getting a job that facilitates a comfortable standard of living:
    - merit counts for... not so much
    -brand name of your education counts for... quite a bit in terms of salary, oppty, etc.
    -money buys safety/security/the 'middle class' life -- no safety for the folks who aren't earning in the top %s in their communities.

    So it isn't the school. It isn't the parents. It is the past twenty years' false ideal that laissez-faire, every man for himself policies would somehow result in success for society. Well, guess what? It didn't. There were a few 'lucky' winners who made out well while our society cratered in oh-so-many ways and where people went into massive cc and home mortgage debt to try to stay 'middle class.'

    So the rational choice is to try for the 'brand name.'