Looking Back At 2021: When Free Means Freeloading

Americans have a very romanticized view of themselves when it comes to the ethic of hard work.

Certainly, being a hard worker in whatever it is that you do is important. Hard work is an ethic and/or trait parents hope to instill in their children, teachers hope to instill in their students, and cultures hope to instill in generations to come.

Whether it involves one’s education, one’s career or one’s relationships, hard work is vital to making the most of any and everything that we do.

However, there are some amongst us that are indoctrinated with the belief that success in anything only comes by way of working hard. There is a level of truth to that statement, however it’s too incomplete a statement that can prey on our ambitions while protecting the social order of things.

I submit that the terms success and successful are subjective and are defined differently by individuals according to what they’re working hard at and for. In the Americanized context of hard work, many grasps onto the notion of hard work so that one day, they can become upwardly mobile and secure the comforts of American living i.e., house with a 2-car garage, two cars, retirement, college savings for kids and money to spend on entertainment… and there’s nothing wrong with that.

But if we’re really being honest, many Americans hope that hard work will make them ridiculously wealthy, where they themselves have the money and power with the ability to indulge in every lust they may have.

… Because wealthy entertainment and media moguls, billionaire entrepreneurs and corporate CEO’s you’ve never heard of are considered aspirational. That partly has to do with why Donald Trump was elected president, but I digress.  

Our society often highlights selfless and unsung members of society—who often live in their purpose—as non-glamourous; they’re without the hefty title and paycheck to match, choosing to sacrifice money for mission so that the masses don’t have to. 

But there is something else this ethic of hard work does, that could be considered more sinister: it masks inequities due to racism and white supremacy as symptom of laziness and a lack of motivation, a claim generally levied at Black people and the poor, as though preaching hard work as opposed to addressing societal inequities is what will help people. 

Not even COVID-19’s exacerbating social and racial inequities can convince some people that inequity fighting initiatives will actually help people. In fact, some believe that such initiatives, like providing free meal to all students, will do more harm than good.

… some with that opinion serve on a school board.

The Waukesha School District Board of Education chose to decline the to opt out of a federally funded program that would give free meals to all students regardless of family income. Rather than remain in the program into the school year, the board of education chose to revert to the National School Lunch Program, which provides free and reduced lunch to eligible students.

The rationale provided by the school board was participating in the federally funded program would lead to a decline in families filling out the paperwork to determine free or reduced lunch status, since the federal program required no such paperwork. Without that data, the school would be unable to provide an accurate picture of financial need within the district, impacting need-based grant funded provided to the district.

But members of the board say something different than that.

According to the Washington Post, Karin Rajnicek, a school board member, said the free program made it easy for families to “become spoiled” and Darren Clark, assistant superintendent for business services, said there could be a “slow addiction” to the service.

School Board President, Joseph Como Jr., said “As we get back to whatever you want to believe normal means, we have decisions to make… I would say this is part of normalization.”

What’s also normal is families living paycheck to paycheck whose children could benefit from receiving free or reduced lunch but do not qualify. 

Since June, hundreds of parents have pressured the school district to return to the federal program for universally provided lunch, regardless of a student’s economic circumstances. Just last week, the Alliance for Education in Waukesha, a parent’s group, held a rally to encourage the district school board to change its decision.

Of Wisconsin’s eligible 408 districts, Waukesha, serving 14,000 students, is the only one choosing to opt out.

But this is a majority white school district.

Again, this rhetoric is reserved for low-income Black and Brown school districts. To hear this rhetoric in a district like this one is different. But Black students are disproportionately harmed in Waukesha. While the district is only 5.5% Black, Black students are disproportionately represented in school suspensions, expulsions and yearly retainment while underrepresented in gifted and talented programs. Thankfully, just this week, the school board reversed it’s decision by a 5 to 4 vote.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King once shared the sentiment that no one is free until we are all free. Yet the counter to that is that people who can afford lunch shouldn’t receive it for free and that only those who need lunch should receive it. However, just because free lunch is available to all doesn’t mean all will take it. Nevertheless, if there is a need, anyone can get what they need – no strings attached.

A universal lunch accomplishes a few things. First, it removes the stigma of the free and reduced lunch program, removing an opportunity for children to be bullied and families (Black and Brown families particularly) from being stigmatized.

Second, allows families whose children wouldn’t qualify for free or reduced lunch to reallocate funds allocated for lunch spending to support other areas of their household. Third, it eliminates the ridiculous need to fine children and families or worse, refuse to provide them with lunch simply because they couldn’t pay.

There wouldn’t be a drain on program resources because every family wouldn’t utilize the program.

Although the Waukesha School Board reversed its decision, the comments made are still problematic. The truth is that many successful people didn’t become successful because they worked hard. Some people were handpicked to fill positions of power and authority. Others were “gifted” or bequeathed with wealth to build and hand down again.

The inconvenient truth, for white people, is that much of the wealth and power is in their control and it’s not by accident, but rather it is by design at the expense of Black people and the poor. That’s systemic racism.

However, it’s easier to stroke a lie than wrestle with the truth. The question is how long before people wake up?


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