It’s been about a decade since the Kids for Cash scandal rocked Luzerne County in northeast Pennsylvania, revealing that judges were essentially selling children to private prisons by taking kickbacks to ensure harsh verdicts and sentences for juvenile offenders. Now a different set of Luzerne County officials have a new twist on selling Kids for Cash: threatening to place children in the foster care system if their parents don’t pay school lunch bills:
The letters sent recently to about 1,000 parents in Wyoming Valley West School District have led to complaints from parents and a stern rebuke from Luzerne County child welfare authorities.
The district says that it is trying to collect more than $20,000, and that other methods to get parents to pay have not been successful. Four parents owe at least $450 apiece.
The letter claims the unpaid bills could lead to dependency hearings and removal of their children for not providing them with food.
“You can be sent to dependency court for neglecting your child’s right to food. The result may be your child being taken from your home and placed in foster care,” the letter read.
Luzerne County seems like a great place to raise a family.
School board members have now revealed that this had nothing to do with money or budgets or needing to pay the bills, even though the school district has trouble with all of those things. It was only about establishing that the creditor class has power over the debtor class.
We know this because the school board has rejected a Philly-based CEO’s offer to pay off all the debt in a kind of school-lunch jubilee, “Philly businessman rebuffed in efforts to clear Pa. kids’ school-lunch debt“:
[Todd] Carmichael had Aren Platt, a La Colombe consultant, reach out to the Wyoming Valley West School District attorney over the weekend, but got no response. Next, efforts were made to reach the superintendent. Finally, Platt found a home phone number for Mazur and called him on Monday. He made the no-strings-attached offer and said Carmichael didn’t necessarily need credit for his actions.
Mazur told Platt that he would not accept the offer, Platt said. Mazur said that he believed most of the families that owed money could afford the debt, and that it was their responsibility to pay.
“His counter was, ‘These are affluent families who just want to get something for free,’” said Platt. “This wasn’t ever about repayment of a debt. It was about shaming people.”
Carmichael agreed that the district is less concerned with its $22,000 and more concerned about humiliating people who struggle.
“I don’t know why anyone would want to do that,” said Carmichael, “to shame them because they can’t pay for mac and cheese.”
Carmichael wasn’t the only donor offering a jubilee here. “County officials told NPR that at least five donors stepped forward willing to pay the students’ debt. A prominent media figure was among those who expressed interested in donating.”
That last quote is from an NPR report that appeared while I was writing this: “Pa. School District Reverses Course and Will Now Accept Donations to Cover Lunch Debt.”
In an about-face, the Pennsylvania school district that threatened to place children in foster care over past-due cafeteria bills is now accepting donations following its initial rejection of those who offered to help, a decision that left many observers puzzled.
… People who tried to contact school officials to donate the full $22,000 that was owed said they were bewildered that they weren’t getting replies from the school district.
… State Rep. Aaron Kaufer, whose district includes the school district, visited the school’s central office in Kingston, Pa., on Wednesday and convinced school board members to welcome charitable gifts.
Kaufer said there appeared to be some infighting among the school’s board members about accepting outside money to cover the meal debt, but the precise reason for donors being ignored was not clear.
“I don’t understand either,” said Kaufer in an interview with NPR.
Kudos to Kaufer for mediating an end to this nonsense. But I think I do understand what Mazur and his fellow Dickensian villains were thinking in their preference for punishing debtors over erasing debt by Jubilee.
Their position isn’t bewildering at all to anyone who’s read the book of Jonah or any of the many parables Jesus told about this same sick, anti-Jubilee ideology. Mazur is Jonah, and the Prodigal son’s older brother, and the unforgiving servant, and the worker who spent a full day in the vineyard. Jubilee enrages him and grace offends him because he’s convinced he doesn’t need it himself. If he can pay all of his debts all on his own, then why should anybody else have their debts forgiven?
“That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”
God is gracious and merciful and abounding in steadfast love. This infuriates some people. Always has.
It’s the same cramped, resentful mental trap that left Jonah sulking under the desert sun. And it’s the same cramped, resentful mental trap that spawned the Tea Party, with its demand that only big banks be bailed out, not individual homeowners facing foreclosure, because why should those people — those undeserving poor with their granite countertops probably — have their debts relieved?
Kaufer ought to understand that attitude, too, because he’s a Republican state representative in Pennsylvania, and that resentment of the poor in service of the creditor class is the animating economic principle for everything his party does in Harrisburg.
Despite the devastating mockery of this attitude in Jonah and all the parables, it’s still ever-present and perniciously popular. That’s partly because it’s a spiritual disease that serves the interests of the very wealthy. They’ve fed and nurtured this sickness for so long that the “morality” of debt is now a complete perversion and inversion of what the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament Jesus (Mr. “I am Jubilee in the flesh” himself) had to say about it.
In the Bible, being in debt is not a sin. But burdening others with debt is. Usury is an abomination — the kind of sin so grievously wicked it counts as a kind of blasphemy. Jubilee, on the other hand, is a command.
Yet the loudest voices of religious moralism in America flip that around, insisting that it’s a sin not to pay all of your debts, with interest, and with interest on the interest. And they’ll fight and oppose anything that looks like Jubilee as a threat to this “morality.”
That very much serves the interests of those whose fortunes are based on their money “making” more money through the magic of interest, i.e., the sin of usury. But I don’t think that’s a consequence or a side-effect caused by all-debts-must-be-paid moralizing. I think it’s the cause and the origin of it.