What do we do about federal budget cuts that target our most vulnerable kids?

By Jacq Williams

I'm struggling, listening to NPR lately. No, not the spring pledge drive. Just the daily horrors flowing out of Washington D.C.

Last week, I was driving to drop my cranky toddler off at her grandmother's house when the local NPR affiliate aired a piece on the new budget proposal, which slashes to ribbons so many social and environmental programs that it's actually difficult to figure out which one to get the most upset about. Then I heard this quote from Mick Mulvaney, White House budget chief:

"So, let’s talk about after-school programs generally. They’re supposed to be educational programs, right? And that’s what they’re supposed to do, they’re supposed to help kids who can’t — who don't get fed at home, get fed so that they do better at school. Guess what? There’s no demonstrable evidence they’re actually doing that. There’s no demonstrable evidence they’re actually helping results, helping kids do better at school."

I am not going to say that I pulled my car over and began to weep, because I didn't ... quite. I breathed deeply, gripped the steering wheel, and asked myself: Is this really it? Have we crossed over into this place? Not just the place where we have to defend feeding a child for no other reason than the fact that she is chronically hungry, but a place where a White House top official is going to claim (falsely, by every single account) that we have no demonstrable evidence that feeding children increases their test scores? As if it's not a given fact of life that when your basic survival needs are met you can focus on other things? As if that's the reason most of us would sign on to such a program in the first place?

It was unbelievable, the way those words rolled of his tongue: "Get fed so they do better at school."

I looked up the quote as soon as I parked, realizing there are only two revisions to this sentence which would make it palatable. One: A period after the words "Get fed."  Two: A complete re-phrasing: These are programs who are supposed to help children who don't get fed at home, get fed so that they do not starve. Maybe it's because I'm a mom, but I'm fairly certain it's because I'm not a sociopath, that I believe this simple fact is in-and-of-itself enough to merit the programs' funding, and that the majority of tax-paying Americans believe that a fed, thriving child is better than one who is starving to death in one of the most prosperous countries on Earth, a country that wastes nearly 40 percent of its food.

Completely unmerited claims about academic performance aside, the programs Trump is proposing to cut feed tens of millions of children every day. The School Lunch and The 21st Century Community Learning Centers Program are directed toward low-performance, high-poverty schools, and feed children living in the most dire economic conditions in the country, who are often affected by multiple social factors which can further impede future successes.

So, says The White House, let's take the students facing the difficulties of single-income households, incarcerated parents, transitional and subsidized housing, and neighborhood violence, in addition to (in most cases) all the economic and social inequities that come with being a person of color, and let's tell these same kids that now they have to starve through the school day as well. Or through the whole day, as often these programs provide the single meal the child eats in 24 hours.

And where is the money going, the money we are taking out of the bellies of America's most vulnerable populations?  To "defense." To the bombs we're dropping with impunity on other children across the world. To a wall built to protect the mirage of Great America, a country that's planning to become "greater" by completely eliminating, among so many other things, programs which fund the arts, public radio, the Clean Power Act, climate research, the Great Lakes Restoration Act, affordable housing, and public transportation -- essentially placing on the chopping block the funds for our culture, humanitarian services, and environment, all in one fell swoop.

Are we watching Trump playing Let's Make a Deal? Giving us this Modest Proposal so everything else -- things that would constitute as egregious cuts but wouldn't be entering the looking glass of a full-on cultureless, militarized state -- seem more palatable later in the process?

Regardless of his reasoning, I can't help but take this as a reaffirmation that we need to stop relying on DC to do the right, or decent, or human thing. The government has long been acting as a war-mongering, for-profit corporation, and I should probably stop feel shocked about it, and start taking more localized action. Now, even before we're offered the diet version of some of these cuts.

So what can we do about this, specifically? I am not going to pretend I have the full-fledge, mass-scale answers, but I've often been accused of speaking in grand theoretical terms and providing no pragmatic solutions, so I've compiled a list of actions we can take as singular, busy, modestly-living human beings, to attempt to mitigate some of the effects of this atrocious budget.

  1.  Identify the schools in the area which will be most affected by these cuts, and contact their outreach personnel to ask what the cuts are going to look like in practicality.
    This will provide an idea of the personalized needs of every school, where they foresee the most radical decreases in funds, and which of their programs could face closure.
  2. Start an email list which gets this information on the radar of NGO's, community members, and advocates surrounding them.
    It's easy to find the contacts for local chapters of food banks, Boy/Girl Scouts, singular philanthropists, and conscious business owners to raise awareness about what the loss of funds will look like for schools in the area. People can't help if they don't know about the problem, and it is going to take many levels of grass-roots and community activism to offset some of these deficits.
  3. Contact local branches of national corporations in the area and ask for regular donations.
    After two phone calls to the local Panera, the women's shelter for which I volunteer now gets a weekly delivery of bread and bagels. Contact local corporate restaurants, especially ones which serve short-shelf-life food like Panera or Dunkin' Donuts, and ask them to pledge to a weekly or bi-weekly delivery of their excess to ease the burden on the school. And our landfills.
  4. Hold a fund-drive.
    A simple dinner, bake sale or community bowling event in which people are given the information and opportunity to donate is a way to at least raise awareness and offer communal support for a struggling school. Of course, it won't offset the school lunch budget for an entire year, but any type of funding that can help provide more substantive meals is of huge benefit.
  5. Volunteer for after-school programs.
    After-school programs feed children snacks and meals, as well as offset the economic stress of hired care, and provide much-needed tutoring and mentoring.  Volunteering or donating to these programs is a great way to relieve some of their payroll burden, and to build community and relationships with kids from different socioeconomic backgrounds.

I truly believe these next four years are going to be dangerous and painful for the most marginalized communities in America, and that the only option with which we are left is to become the crusaders of community-based advocacy. We do have, in each of us, the power to ease even the smallest fraction of the collective suffering, and with that power comes the responsibility to show up, and to do all we can, together.


Jacq Williams is a freelance writer, homesteader, and activist from Southeast Michigan. She is currently working on an advocacy project for pregnant women in prison and transitional housing, called the Inmate Birth and Infancy Project.