Posted by: bkivey | 24 June 2010

In loco parentis


With the end of the school year in many districts there has been much hand-wringing in some quarters about how children will eat. The argument goes that children who receive free and reduced-price breakfasts and lunches will end up going without food. In some districts schools are open throughout the summer in order to function as government-run (read taxpayer-supported) restaurants. The feeling, to call it thinking does the process too much credit, is that society owes children in the lower economic strata some sort of succor.

The question that would  immediately leap to most people’s minds, but apparently eludes those of conspicuous compassion, is: where are the parents? Is it not the most fundamental duty of a parent to provide for their children? A parent may not provide all the love and understanding a child might require or the latest electronic geegaws and they may be economically limited in the opportunities they can provide but they are certainly bound by a moral imperative if not a legal one to provide food, shelter and clothing for their children until majority. To hear some people talk you would think that there are large populations of free-range street urchins without kith or kin who would well-nigh perish if not for the  intervention of the morally superior.

The notion is, of course, ridiculous. The overwhelming majority of children on subsidized meal programs are not orphans; they come from households that contain one or more adults who are legally responsible for the children. Yet when people talk about helping “the children” they rarely mention the adult part of the equation. The effect is to divorce the responsible adults from, well, responsibility. I think that this is done quite deliberately, as it’s hard to drum up sympathy for parents not meeting their responsibilities but easy to slap a picture of a hungry child up and wait for the sympathy and money to flow. The fact that in most social programs benefits must go through the parents rather than directly to the children is frequently glossed over, because it’s all about helping “the children”.

The mindset of some people reminds me of watching documentaries where predators cull the most vulnerable, the very young and the very old, from the herd. Except in human society the effect is to fracture the community by Balkanizing the population in the name of compassion. While I am not one to assign nefarious motives to people without hard evidence to the contrary, the actions of some suggests that they want children to view the State as mother, the State as father. This is divisive and hurtful to society as a whole because it causes children to trivialize their relationship with their parents and depend on others for the most basic necessities.

And what of the parents? Do they not feel shame that people think them incapable of providing for their children? One might think that an adult with a shred of dignity would resent others implying that they could not even feed their child. Or have people been so beaten down by the soft bigotry of low expectations that they no longer care what others think of them as parents or human beings, as long as someone else is paying their bills, assuming their responsibilities?

I understand that not every family can meet its needs at times. Tough times happen. But it’s a safe bet that any family whose children qualify for subsidized meals at school is very likely receiving other forms of social assistance, so it’s not like they will find themselves suddenly destitute when the school year ends. The children might not eat as well as some people would like them to, but it’s unlikely the kids will starve.

I’ll let you in on a little secret: I have experience with this scenario. My parents divorced when I was 12 and my mother, without current job skills or experience, was faced with raising five children. Things got hungry fast. We qualified for and received AFDC and food stamps and subsidized meals, but at that time there was significant stigma attached to taking government assistance. I can’t imagine the shame my mother must have felt when she had to pull out those brightly colored food stamps at the grocery checkout in full view of her neighbors. I do know the shame I felt when I had to present my reduced-price meal ticket at the school cafeteria in front of my friends. My mother worked two jobs and baked bread and canned for the winter and there was never enough food. But we did the best we could and nobody starved.

I don’t object to social assistance per se: I object to the invidious implications of those who trivialize and divide families, whether done intentionally or not,  in order to assuage their guilt over their own good fortune. Those who seek to destroy families in order to advance their social agendas are truly evil, but I welcome the compassionate to propose solutions to ease the trials of life without sacrificing human dignity.


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