The Biggest Loser of Teacher Strikes – The Poor and Hungry



I am completely fine with walkouts, sit-ins, strikes, marches, or any other sign of activism that is steeped in fighting for what you believe in. For example, teachers in West Virginia led a nine-day strike that closed public schools for all teachers and students because the teachers wanted a 5% raise. Now again, I’m all for activism to advocate for yourself and what you believe in. I’m not, however, in favor of personal gain while others suffer.

In West Virginia, of the 273,170 students who attended a traditional public school in 2016-2017, 191,533 received free or reduced-price meals (FARMS) including lunch and breakfast. Of that number, 80% were considered on the “low socioeconomic scale.” This means the majority of their students depended on the school nutrition program for at least two of their meals each day during the school year. However, when schools are closed because of a strike how do these children eat?

My guess is in most places they don’t. Or they do so very sparingly. I was happy to hear that some teachers in West Virginia did, in fact, ensure that a food distribution system was set up. That was great. However, my experiences as the Public Information Officer of a fairly large urban school system, taught me what something like a snowstorm that shut our schools down for 10 straight days can do to the poor and hungry.

On day one I asked the Superintendent about feeding the children and families who depended on us for food. “Let’s see how things progress,” a Deputy Superintendent told me. On the second day, schools were still closed and no meals were served. On the third day, I laced up my boots, dug out my car, and went looking for a solution. I called the head of our transportation department with the crazy idea of clearing parking lots in schools where our largest numbers of students on the school nutrition program lived and using our school buses as makeshift food delivery systems.

“Let’s feed the children,” I said. And we did.

Hungry children during a school closing is not a new phenomenon. In fact, National Public Radio reported on it in 2014 in a piece called “For Low-Income Students, Snow Days Can Be Hungry Days.” As the piece explains, typically when families hear about impending weather storms, they stock up on food to ensure they will have enough, but what happens when stocking up isn’t an option for you because of your limited available funds? What if it is near the end of the month and your SNAP benefits are depleted? Who feeds you then?

This same NPR report gave an example of one school that said they often see a higher participation in breakfast the day class resumes after a weather-related closure. Sixty-eight percent of this school’s student population is on free or reduced-price lunch. 

According to the USDA, in 2017 74% of all students on a school lunch program received free or reduced-price meals; while 85% of the same category of students received free or reduced-price breakfast at school.

I’m concerned about the other states that are looking at what happened in West Virginia as a catalyst for doing something similar in their state. For example, educators in Oklahoma, where of the 693,710 public school students, 442,818 are on FARMS, are considering a strike for higher wages. My hope is Oklahoma Education Association, the group organizing the possible upcoming strike, will consider the students and their families who need daily meals through the school nutrition program, instead of only considering the adults in this situation.

Activism is great, until the children suffer.

We've been fighting the War on Poverty for 54 years and still nothing's changed

After nearly 25 years working in and around communities dealing with intergenerational poverty, I'm pretty sure we don't need a new report telling us that child poverty is still a problem in America. President Lyndon Johnson declared a “War on Poverty” in 1968 when the national poverty rate was around 19%. In 2015, the national poverty rate was roughly 14%; a 5% difference. However, if you disaggregate the data, and peel back a few layers, you would see that Black and Latino populations have not seen the economic growth as others have in this country.

I don’t need another research report, or any other data points to make me believe that we are not winning this poverty war…or at least some of us are not winning. In fact, we may well be losing the battle and the war.  

Over the years this country has spent trillions of dollars on efforts to eradicate poverty – a social phenomenon that affects all of us. Every race. Every city. Every region of this country. Poverty itself doesn’t know color, but those who are in charge of manning this war seem to know. Their color blindness is uniquely shown in the disproportionate numbers of those in dearth. Black and Brown communities are often leading the data tables when it comes to lack –  lack of money, lack of food, lack of high-quality educational options, lack of affordable housing, lack of livable wages, etc. Those in charge use these data points to inform the policies and funding they vote on and yet, Black and Brown children are still losing. Why is that?

But here again, I don’t need another research report to tell me what I have already seen in my lifetime – poor children are still finishing last. According to the Children’s Defense Fund, the U.S. Census Bureau released data in 2015 that revealed there were 46.7 million poor people in America in 2014 and 1 in 3 are children. The fact is, children remain the poorest group in this country. Of the 15.5 million children in America, 21% are poor. Looking at subgroups 37% of Black children are poor and 32% of Latino children are as well. This is in contrast to 12% of White children. What is most startling to me is 1 in 5 Black children live in extreme poverty. In 2014, that was a 13% increase since the previous year.

And although I can appreciate these statistics and use them as needed, I don’t need reports to tell me that we’re losing ground. In fact, we are losing this war on poverty – especially in our neediest areas. I grew up in one of Washington, D.C.’s poorest neighborhoods. And what was a reality then, is a reality today – it still has the highest poverty rates, highest rates of children on public assistance, and highest rates of unemployment in the city.   

I have been fortunate enough to have spent nearly half of my life advocating for improved conditions for children, specifically poor children. I don’t need statistics to tell me our children are hungry and that they are being left behind. I see it when I work with schools and nonprofit organizations who are doing their best to help however they are able. I think this article entitled “Why it costs so much to be poor in America” published in the Washington Post summed up the realities of poverty correctly:

It has never been easy to be poor in America… It is not unusual for cash-strapped families to have to line up before dawn in the cold in front of a government office just to secure an appointment to apply for limited heating assistance at a later date. (Imagine if your dentist worked this way). Many people who need, and are eligible for, government assistance with various necessities simply do not receive it, either because it requires complicated paperwork they do not have the discretionary time to manage, requires travel to an office they cannot get to, or involves an appointment during the hours they work…More than 40 percent of Americans say they struggle even to make ends meet each month and would be unable to cover an unexpected $400 expense without real hardship. No amount is small if you cannot afford it.

I know the problems and the ills of this so-called War on Poverty. I’m sure we all do. What we need now are more solutions. This past July, I had the privilege of joining the team at the Wayfinder Foundation, a newly established charitable organization with an important mission of ending poverty by investing in women activists who have the potential for building power in their own communities. Last week we launched the Community Activist Fellowship Program, where we will be making direct investments in activists throughout the year in Los Angeles, Indianapolis, Memphis, and Washington, D.C. Our hope is to provide resources to women activists who are often overlooked by traditional philanthropy and who lack the resources to adequately do their work.  Our goal is through these investments we will begin to win the battles, and ultimately the war.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” So not only will I not be silent, I will continue move beyond my words into actions as I encourage others to do the same.