The sequester’s impact on hunger and school achievement

How will the sequester affect America’s neediest young people and their ability to function well in school? Here is a look, by Elaine Weiss, national coordinator of the campaign for a Broader Bolder Approach to Education, a national campaign that promotes reforms which address the impact of social and economic disadvantage on young students.

By Elaine Weiss

To hear politicians talk about it, the sequester might pose a huge problem for poor Americans, or none at all, or anywhere in between. Indeed, according to Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, poor families are already doing better than their middle-class counterparts, so for sure they have nothing to worry about. Even those informed by facts have a hard time predicting the exact damage, given that the impacts of across-the-board cuts will roll out over many months, even years.

But two new documentaries coming out this month make chillingly clear the horrific impact it will have on poor families, especially those with school children, who are already struggling to cope with the recession and the decades of wage stagnation and poverty that preceded it. Both films also make clear the direct, but perhaps not intuitive, connection between living in poverty and the odds of school, and thus life, success.

A Place at the Table,” featuring Jeff Bridges and chef Tom Colicchio, opened March 1 in theaters across the country. It takes a hard swipe at those who deny the extent of U.S. hunger, and who deny that we have at hand the policies to end it, just not the will. In one scene, a single mother says that, like any American parent, she wants to go to college to ensure a better future for her two young children. Given that she cannot “make sure you guys eat in [those] two years [of college],” she has no way to make it a reality.

On March 18, HBO releases “American Winter.” Directed and produced by Emmy-winning filmmakers Joe and Harry Gantz, the film tracks eight Portland, Oregon families who called the city’s emergency hotline with needs from help finding a job to trying to prevent the lights from being turned off. Here, too, hunger is in stark relief, as is the lack of what we think of as normal childhood in the lives of many poor children. One mother cries when the “pay-what-you-can” restaurant she and her son trekked to was closed: “You have school tomorrow… I don’t want you to go to sleep with an empty belly.” He tries to comfort her, insisting that he doesn’t need a hot meal, he would get lunch in school the next day. A boy sitting on the couch with his little brother confesses that he overhears his parents in bed talking about having skipped dinner so that their sons could at least eat.

The emotional, as well as physical toll that poverty takes is perhaps most graphically illustrated by an adolescent boy who explains earnestly to the filmmakers that he can no longer speak truthfully with classmates at his “judgmental” school, because if they knew that he slept in a shelter he’d be excluded “for living somewhere that isn’t regular or normal.” As much as parents emphasize to their children “it’s not your fault” – that we can’t pay the medical bills, mortgage, utilities – there is no escaping the feeling of guilt layered on top of all the rest. It is wrenching to hear a pre-teen say: “I want to go to college, I want to have a good life. It makes me worry – how am I going to be successful? And how am I going to be able to provide for my family? I worry about that every day.”

Before the sequester hit, on the same day “A Place at the Table” was released, food insecurity was so widespread that “one out of every two kids in the United States will at some time be on food assistance.” Many of them, like the Portland families, aren’t even poor – they are trying desperately to hang on to a middle class for whom, as the film’s narrator aptly notes, it “is a one-strike, you’re out, economy.” Indeed, most Americans are surprised to learn that the parents of hungry children typically have full-time jobs.

The sequester’s across-the-board cuts will eliminate some of those jobs; many more children will be living with unemployed parents. While “mandatory” programs like food stamps are exempt, other nutrition supports are not. Up to 750,000 vulnerable mothers, infants, and toddlers will lose support from the proven cost-effective WIC program. 70,000 low-income children will lose access to Head Start. Over 100,000 families will no longer have housing assistance, with devastating impacts that “American Winter” makes all too clear.

We cannot force Senators Sessions and like-minded legislators to tell the truth about the sequester’s impacts. So we must, as voters and citizens, arm ourselves to dispel the myths they propagate. Join the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, the National Education Association, and The Nation for a March 14 screening of “American Winter” and a panel discussion on the film’s policy implications.

When a young father and mother tell filmmakers, “Forget the dreams [we used to have for our children and their future]. How do we make it to tomorrow?”, we know that what really is at stake is our collective future.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.

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Valerie Strauss · March 11, 2013

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