It’s Time to Stop Shaming Students When Their Parents Can’t Pay the Lunch Bill

Last spring, a third grader in an Alabama elementary school walked into the cafeteria to get lunch. But because his lunch account was running low, he was stamped on the arm by a school employee with the words “I need lunch money” for all his peers to see.

Across the country, schools are using similar tactics to humiliate students with outstanding lunch bills. According to a troubling 2014 report from the United States Department of Agriculture, almost half of all school districts used some form of lunch shaming to get parents to pay outstanding bills. These tactics range from making children clean the cafeteria, to forcing them to wear a special wristband, to replacing their hot lunches with alternate food, to throwing away a student’s lunch right in front of their eyes—and the eyes of their peers.

School lunch debt is not an isolated problem—76 percent of school districts have kids with school lunch debt, according to the School Nutrition Association. But stigmatizing children by singling them out in these cruel and public ways is a complete betrayal of our values as a nation. No child in America should be shamed by their school for their parents’ economic situation.

No child in America should be shamed by their school for their parents’ economic situation.

For many of our most vulnerable children, school lunches provide their most nutritious—or in some cases, their only—meal of the day. Good nutrition gives children a solid foundation for the rest of their lives. It builds their brains, aids the development of their immune systems, and sets them on course for healthy growth. But when children do not receive nutritious food, we see instances of poor academic performance, especially among elementary-age children in math and reading.

Instead of shaming children or putting their health on the line, schools should work with parents to find solutions for the underlying issue. Fortunately, there has been some progress to stop this abhorrent practice. In March, New Mexico passed the first law in the United States to prohibit lunch shaming, setting an example the rest of the country should follow.

That is why I am proud to join Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM) to introduce the Anti-Lunch Shaming Act, which would ban schools from singling out children because their parents have not paid their school meal bills. The bill would prohibit shaming tactics, including the practice of throwing a child’s meal away rather than extending credit for meals. It would shift direct communications about debt to the parent, not the child. This is how it ought to be—a child should not be a go between for an institution and a parent.

The time has come to ensure that students no longer walk into the cafeteria afraid of humiliation. We have a moral obligation to end lunch shaming once and for all.


First Person

Pell Grants Put Me Through College. Now Trump Wants to Cut Them.

I started college when my daughter was only 14 months old. We had been homeless six months earlier. My life up until I discovered I was pregnant had been blissfully unplanned. I worked a lot at random jobs, and figured someday—when I finally admitted I was a writer who would take writing seriously—I’d settle down and go to college.

But the pregnancy was unplanned, too. So was the abuse from the father. So was him kicking us out in the middle of a particularly snowy winter in northwest Washington.

A few months before my daughter Mia’s first birthday, I worked with a friend, eagerly taking up the slack in his landscaping business. I crawled through flowerbeds and junipers and pulled weeds. By the time the season ended, Mia and I had an apartment paid for mostly by a housing grant. But I knew if I expected anyone to hire me for a job with benefits, I needed a degree.

My parents didn’t raise me with an expectation that I would go to college. When I approached my dad with a list of schools I wanted to apply to during my junior year of high school, he said, “Who do you think’s gonna pay for that?” So I moved out of my parents’ house and went to work full-time for over a decade. That had seemed all right. Respectable, even. But now I needed a job that would do more than just barely pay the rent.

I was able to go to college, and get the degree I knew I needed, because of a grant the federal government provides to low-income students—the Pell Grant. It covered my entire tuition at my local community college, leaving me a few hundred bucks to live off of. I crept along that way. I found full-time work as a maid. I worked late at night, often past midnight, and through the weekends when my daughter was with her dad.

I needed a job that would do more than just barely pay the rent.

Transferring to a four-year college, for me, meant moving to a different state. I moved to the place I’d intended to go before I became a mom. I moved because, when I visited, I found a progressive community that’d be supportive of a single mom working her way through college. I moved because I needed to hold myself accountable to my dream of being a writer that I’d had since I was ten. I needed my daughter to see me pursue that dream, and not settle for anything less, because I never wanted her to think life wouldn’t afford her the same opportunity.

By that time, I paid for books and tuition with the Pell Grant and a scholarship created for survivors of domestic violence. I also took out the maximum amount of student loans to cover living expenses through the school year when I was only able to work part-time as a maid.  I lived off of a little over $1,000 a month, and my daughter bounced from preschool to the various homes of classmates when I worked or attended class. Neighbors watched her for free, and I rented the other bedroom of our apartment in exchange for help with child care.

Since I was juggling work and child care, I couldn’t take a full course load during the semesters. Instead, I took classes every summer. When the summer courses finished, I worked 10- to 12-hour days doing move-out cleans, landscaping gigs, and any other work I could find until the academic year began again.

A month before my daughter turned seven, she watched me walk across the stage to get my bachelor’s degree.

A year later, I was working full-time as a freelance writer. A year after that, I celebrated my first book deal for a memoir about my time in college, when I worked as a maid. We no longer need government assistance, but we only got here because it was there for us when we did need it. Especially the Pell Grant.

These budget cuts keep people shut behind closed doors.

In his recent budget, President Trump proposed cutting the Pell Grant’s surplus funds by $3.9 billion.  That surplus was set aside, with bipartisan support, so that recipients can attend summer school like I did. Trump also wants to cut funds for the work study program and TRIO, which mentors, tutors, and finds resources for students in need—including low-income single moms.

Trump’s plan to cut this funding will diminish opportunities for first generation students, single parents, disabled students, and low-income populations to get an education.  All that does is keep the cycle of poverty spinning. It keeps people shut behind closed doors, with the belief that opportunities just aren’t available to them.  It hurts students who can’t get the support they need through their families—because their family has no money, or no one has ever gone to college, or no one expected them to go, either.

I write today as a success story, heartbroken that others won’t have the same opportunity I did. Decreasing funds for these programs puts up road blocks that stop people in poverty from ever setting foot on a college campus, all for the sake of tax breaks for the wealthy that leave the path of the privileged pristine.



Why Trump’s Supporters Haven’t Abandoned Him

Just 100 days into his presidency, Americans no longer expect President Donald Trump to keep the promises that got him elected. He walked back his promises on China, delivered nothing on his pledge to create infrastructure jobs, and—instead of “draining the swamp”—filled his cabinet with billionaires tied to corporate interests. The policies he has supported would do real harm to some of his staunchest supporters—white men without a college degree. Yesterday’s House vote on the American Health Care Act, also known as Trumpcare, will kick millions off their insurance. And he has proposed the elimination of half of the federal programs designed to help workers in coal country, and flirted with trade wars.

Nevertheless, 96 percent of the people who voted for Trump say they’d make the same decision today.

When I was growing up—in the 1970s, in the deep South—I struggled to understand why some low-income white Southerners voted against their own interests. They dismissed unions, and supported politicians that let their states lag behind the rest of the country in every indices of health, livelihood, and employment.  They routinely supported candidates who opposed everything from access to affordable childcare, to unemployment benefits and investing in good jobs, to Medicaid expansion today.

But now I realize they’re not voting for policy. They’re voting for white privilege.

They’re voting for white privilege.

White privilege runs deep in America, and it still shapes white concepts of social standing and entitlement. Those entitlements can be symbolic—for example, the power that whites have in the South to maintain Confederate emblems with public prominence and high esteem. They can also be very literal, as with public policies that help whites build and sustain wealth while keeping doors of opportunity closed to blacks (think redlining, predatory lending, unequal access to higher education, and lack of investment in communities of color). That helps explain why black people in poverty have higher death rates than white people in poverty.

Perhaps because it plays such a central role in life in America, “white privilege” is not a comfortable phrase to say—not now, and certainly not in my childhood. Back then, Southerners only used this term—or its counterpart, “white supremacy”—to indicate that someone supported the Ku Klux Klan.

Most white Americans still prefer to define racism in those overt terms. It’s a convenient approach that limits discussion of racism to bygone “whites only” signs and burning crosses, and that argues inequality in our schools ended in 1954 with the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. Few people—and even fewer white people—ever spoke the way famed basketball coach Greg Popovich did recently when he called out white privilege for what it really is:

If you were born white, you automatically have a monstrous advantage educationally, economically, culturally in this society and all the systemic roadblocks that exist, whether it’s in a judicial sense, a neighborhood sense with laws, zoning, education.  We have huge problems… that are very complicated, but take leadership, time, and real concern to try to solve… People don’t really want to face it.

Our most pernicious social ills—the ones that create the privilege that Popovich described, and that many of Trump’s voters cling to—are rooted in policies that were designed to target people of color. We can measure racism by the impact of redlining and toxic mortgages. We can see it in the justice system, where black defendants receive twice as severe sentences as whites convicted of the same crimes. We can find it in classrooms that are still highly segregated, leaving children of color in schools that receive dramatically fewer resources.

America is essentially a racist nation—riddled by racial markers—that is levying its harshest economic and psychological toll on the 1 in 3 African American children and more than 1 in 4 Hispanic children who live in poverty.

Trump appeals to a strain of American racism

Trump appeals to a strain of American racism every time he calls for a border wall, or calls inner cities “a disaster,” or swears he’ll ban Muslims from entering the country. That is what many of his voters—who are disproportionately likely to hold dehumanizing views of black people—want.

By backing Trump, conservatives have coalesced around maintaining a racially divided nation, and so progressives must now coalesce against it. Decisively.

Unfortunately, liberal politicians hoping to woo white voters have also skirted acknowledging white privilege, out of fear that talk about race will strain coalitions. Even the progressive hero Bernie Sanders was slow to talk about racial disparities in America  at the beginning of his presidential campaign—before Black Lives Matter activists protested at his rallies. Silence concerning white privilege is a form of complicity.  It’s the hypocritical denial of reality experienced by blacks that fosters disunity between minorities and white progressives, and discourages minority voters.

The time has come for whites who understand what white privilege means—and who know in their hearts that they want no part of it—to join people of color in a way which is neither compromised nor complicit. Then, through shared power, people of color and white progressives can grow our political strength.



The House Just Voted to Put People With Disabilities One Step Closer to Institutions

This afternoon, House Republicans voted to roll back the Affordable Care Act’s protections for people with pre-existing conditions, slash hundreds of billions of dollars from Medicaid, and otherwise harm the health care of seniors, people with disabilities, veterans, and the vast majority of Americans. The American Health Care Act (AHCA), or Trumpcare, is an extraordinary statement of contempt towards any member of the public who might actually need health care in the coming years (hint: that’s all of us).

Though some of the damage that this bill does has been well publicized, there is a particularly odious impact of Trumpcare getting very little attention: It threatens to force seniors and people with disabilities into nursing homes and institutions.

For the last several decades, disability rights advocates have fought to expand funding for Medicaid-funded home and community-based services, so that seniors and people with disabilities can live in their own homes, control their own lives, and be fully included in society. Thanks to generations of advocacy, millions of Americans with disabilities receive Medicaid-funded home care today.

When the Affordable Care Act was passed, legislators started to prioritize funding for programs that provide people with disabilities with services in their homes, rather than relegating those who require additional support to institutions and nursing homes. Through the ACA, Congress created several programs designed to reward states with additional Medicaid funds if they expanded in-home care for seniors and people with disabilities.

The AHCA sunsets this program in 2020

One of the most successful of these programs is the Community First Choice State Option (CFC), which provides funding for services that help seniors and people with disabilities get out of bed, dress, and perform other activities necessary for daily life. A 2015 review of the four states that have been using the CFC the longest found that the program was serving over 500,000 people—today, that number is likely much larger. But the AHCA sunsets this program in 2020, cutting about $12 billion in funding from in-home care from seniors and people with disabilities over the next decade.

That is only a small part of the $839 billion in Medicaid cuts AHCA imposes overall, which themselves will devastate Medicaid-funded services to seniors and people with disabilities across the country. AHCA also sets “caps” on each states’ Medicaid funding that will grow at a much slower rate than the existing Medicaid funding system, cutting hundreds of billions of funding over the next decade relative to current law. In addition, the caps also freeze in place state funding decisions at the time they’re made—so a state that offered relatively stingy benefits to people with disabilities or children in 2017 would no longer be able to access additional federal funds to expand those services in the future.

Some Republican House members realized the harm AHCA will cause to their constituents with disabilities. Rep. Daniel Webster (FL-10) bemoaned the likely impact AHCA’s Medicaid cuts would have on seniors living in his district, so he introduced an amendment to exempt nursing homes from AHCA’s caps on Medicaid funding during the March push to pass the bill. The amendment did not offer protections for home care, so it actually would have worsened Medicaid’s longstanding bias in favor of institutional care.

The GOP leadership still refused to adopt Webster’s amendment. For them, even weak protections for seniors and people with disabilities go too far.

Despite stating clearly on Tuesday that his “concern that Florida will be penalized under the American Health Care Act because demand for Medicaid-funded nursing home beds has not been fixed,” Webster voted in favor of the American Health Care Act today—in exchange for “assurances” from the Trump White House that his concerns will be addressed in the future.

Republicans in the House continue to put their faith in Donald Trump, instead of insisting on meager protections of their own constituents’ needs. For too many members of Congress, the needs of seniors and people with disabilities are taking a backseat to trusting Donald Trump —and advancing his health care bill—at all costs.



Congressional Democrats’ $15 Minimum Wage Bill, Explained

Last week, Democratic leaders in the Senate—including Bernie Sanders, Patty Murray, and Charles Schumer—announced legislation to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2024.

Five years ago, when fast-food workers formed the Fight for $15 movement, it seemed like a pipe dream. Sanders’s 2015 bill advocating for a $15 federal minimum wage received just five co-sponsors, and throughout the 2016 presidential campaign Hillary Clinton supported a more modest $12 per hour wage. But last week’s bill already has support of nearly half the Democrats in the Senate, and has champions lined up in the House.

With Republicans in control of both Congress and the White House, the bill stands little chance of passing. But raising the minimum wage is one of the best tools we have to fight poverty, so it’s worth understanding the details of the legislation that Congressional Democrats have united behind.

Here’s How the Bill Works

If enacted, the Raise the Wage Act of 2017 would raise the federal minimum wage by $2 this year, to $9.25. That would immediately raise wages in 37 states. Thereafter, the wage would increase by about a dollar per year until it reaches $15 in 2024. Ultimately, that will raise wages in 48 states (New York, California, and the District of Columbia, which make up nearly one-fifth of the national workforce, have already enacted their own $15 minimum wage legislation).

After 2024, increases would be linked to growth in the median wage. That’s actually a big deal. In the past, the minimum wage has only increased when new legislation specifically raised it. That’s a slow process, and Congress typically doesn’t bother to do it until inflation has caused the minimum wage to lose a lot of value.  There have been several proposals to link the federal minimum wage to inflation, so that it would increase automatically each year, but none of them have ever become law. This bill skips right over inflation and links to the median wage, which tends to grow faster than inflation does. That would ensure that wage growth for low-wage workers would keep pace with the rest of the workforce, which would curb inequality and make a meaningful statement about the value of their work.

The bill would also gradually phase out subminimum wages for tipped workers, young people, and people with disabilities. Their minimum wages—currently set at $2.13 per hour for tipped workers, $4.25 per hour for young people, and as low as pennies per hour for disabled people—would be raised gradually until they are even with the federal minimum wage.

By the time the minimum wage hits $15 in 2024, it will likely have the same purchasing power as about $12.50 to $13.50 does today (depending on inflation). That’s about 70 percent to 85 percent greater than the current federal minimum wage, and about 30 percent more than the minimum wage’s peak value in 1968. It would be just enough to keep a family of four out of poverty—unlike the current minimum wage, which leaves a family of four well below the federal poverty line.

Here’s Who It Would Help

According to analysis by the Economic Policy Institute, nearly 3 in 10 American workers—more than 41 million people—would see higher wages under the Raise the Wage Act of 2017. Two-thirds of affected people work full time, and well over half are women. And, although white workers would be the largest group to benefit in terms of population size, the bill would disproportionately help workers of color. More than 4 in 10 African American workers—and one-third of Latino workers—would get a raise. Children also stand to gain a lot, since nearly 1 in 4 have a parent who would be affected.

The average affected worker is 36 years old, and is a primary breadwinner who uses their earnings to support their family. These low-wage workers are not only older, but also more productive and better educated than their counterparts in prior generations. Nearly half (46.5 percent) have at least some college experience.

Here’s What It Would Do for the Economy

The average directly affected full-time, year-round worker would see his annual earnings rise by more than $5,000 by 2024—an increase of nearly one-third. The bill would increase consumer spending and reduce taxpayer spending on public-assistance programs such as nutrition assistance since workers would be able to make ends meet on their own.

To be sure, economists can’t predict the full effects of a $15 minimum wage, even if it is phased in slowly. We can be confident that the increased consumer spending would give local economies a boost, but we can’t be positive that there would be no adverse effect on employment.

There are benefits beyond pure economic growth

Even if employers responded to the wage hike by cutting workers’ hours, or if workers ended up spending a few extra days between jobs, the benefits would likely far outweigh the negatives. First of all, the wage hike is big enough that workers who experience a reduction in hours may still break even or come out ahead in terms of annual earnings. Second, there are other legislative options that could make sure disadvantaged workers do not feel negative effects. This includes, for example, expanding our Unemployment Insurance system to cover low-wage workers who spend a few extra days searching for their next job; extending short-time compensation and partial unemployment benefits for workers who experience reductions in hours; and creating subsidized employment, national service, paid training, and apprenticeship opportunities for folks who are unable to find work.

It’s also worth remembering that there are benefits beyond pure economic growth and workers’ pay. A $15 minimum wage would help increase family stability and close stubborn gender and racial wage gaps. Rigorous research also shows that higher minimum wages improve infant health, reduce crime, and decrease poverty.

It’s a Political Long Shot—but Not Introduced in Vain

Since Republicans have the majority in Congress, this bill can’t pass without their support. And, even though the bill is popular with the public and would help Trump keep his promise to give his supporters higher wages at virtually no cost to government, it’s unlikely that Congressional Republicans are going to reverse course and suddenly support minimum wage hikes.   

But even if Congress doesn’t pass this bill, it will likely encourage wage hikes on a local level. Sen. Sanders’ previous $15 proposal, inspired by the Fight for $15, preceded successful state and local bills such as those in California, New York, the District of Columbia, and Seattle. Similarly, Sen. Murray and Rep. Scott’s bill for $12 by 2020 provided the wage target for Arizona and Colorado’s laws. With a strong majority of voters across party lines supporting a higher minimum wage, more states and localities can be expected to take matters into their own hands by adapting federal legislation.

Correction: This article originally stated that the Raise the Wage Act of 2017 would immediately raise wages in 48 states. It will immediately raise wages in 37 states, and eventually raise wages in 48 states.