Poverty, Envy and a Poolside Lunch

Poverty, Envy and a Poolside Lunch July 23, 2019

I used to know a well-to-do woman of the neighborhood, a Catholic stay-at-home mom with several kids.  She was always pontificating about something, and that something was usually poor people.

One day, several years ago now, this woman was particularly incensed because she had seen a truck handing out free lunches at the local public pool.

These lunches were part of the government’s school lunch program, which used to bring lunches to parks and other public places in the summer so that children didn’t go without lunch when school was out. She was furious that people who could afford to get into the pool, which she deemed to be a luxury, were being treated to a lunch on the taxpayer’s dime. She was very public about her disdain, and denounced the free lunch program in several different places. I watched a comment thread go on for 100 comments one evening– that’s how angry she was about this one particular government program.

This pool was not luxurious– just a standard blue concrete rectangle next to a smaller concrete wading pool, with some playground equipment and picnic benches. It was the only public pool in town, it was in a public park and the property of the city. At the time, if I recall, the cost of admission to the pool was four dollars for an adult and two for a child for a day. The Parks and Recreation Department also sold pool memberships for a family rate of something like $100– all the adults and children in a household could go swimming as often as they wanted, whenever the pool was open, for a hundred bucks up front for the summer. In a twelve-week summer, that adds up to just under $8.50 a week. In addition, those family memberships were being sold at reduced rates or even just given away, according to a sliding scale, to anyone who brought proof of income to show they were below the poverty line– I had one for free a few summers in a row.

I used that free pass to take Rosie to paddle her feet in the baby pool on hot days. It was a welcome break from our tiny apartment. And while I was at the pool, I watched enormous gaggles of hyperactive children swimming, playing, fighting each other. They defied orders from the tired lifeguards; they splashed Rosie and called me names.  Sometimes I watched them run over to the benches and devour a free sandwich with a pint of milk, an apple and a baggie of raw vegetables. I watched them tumble back into the pool. I admit that I was annoyed and wished there was some kind of no-unsupervised-children hour for a quiet swim. But I soon realized why they were there.

During the school year, those children went to the local public school for free and got free school lunches to eat. Afterwards, they went to an after school program until their parents got off work. But during the summer, the schools were closed and many of the after school programs weren’t available. The only thing available was daycare, which is expensive– far too expensive for many families to afford. So some of those parents shelled out between zero and a hundred dollars for a pool membership so that their children who were old enough to swim wouldn’t be home alone completely unattended all day long– instead, they rode their bikes to where there was something to do for fun and grown-ups with first aid training being paid to keep a certain amount of order. The children rode their bikes to the playground until the pool opened; then they stayed at the pool until it closed and rode their bikes home. While they were at the pool, thanks to the free lunch program, they got some bland healthy food once a day.

As taxpayer-funded programs go, this one seemed quite reasonable: bring a truckload of cheap healthy meals to the place where children went to be supervised during the months they weren’t at school, so that they had something nutritious once a day until school started up again. I assume taxpayers footed the bill for the discount pool memberships as well: and again, having a fenced-in area where children can play in clean water on hot days with someone to fish them out and call 911 if they were hurt, is a pretty good use of taxpayer money. I think we could do better still, but it’s something.

All this woman saw were people whom she deemed able to afford a luxury, bilking taxpayers for free sandwiches. She viewed those children as stealing her personal property.

Of course she was accused of lacking charity, by more people than just me. And people tried to explain how the programs worked, so she’d realize her mistake. And she had an answer at the ready. It wasn’t “sorry, I didn’t realize how cheap it was, I thought it was a luxury.” And it wasn’t “I think there’s a better way of achieving the same goals.” It certainly wasn’t “I’ll just make them some sandwiches myself instead of their needing to use tax dollars.” It was, “We are denying the poor the honor of providing for their own children.”

That was what she said. I’ve never forgotten it.

Giving children some free raw broccoli and 2% milk at the pool was wrong because it deprived parents of the “honor” of working to pay for their children’s meals. She believed this, despite the fact that the children were only having lunch at the pool at the first place because their parents were at work, desperately trying to make ends meet, and this was the most fiscally responsible way they had to keep the children supervised and fed so that they could keep working.

I thought about that episode today, as I went to that same pool with Rosie– we paid full price to get in, for the record, with money I earned working here at Patheos. The pool no longer gives away free or discounted memberships, though they have lowered the price overall. It’s a dollar per person on Tuesdays. And there is no longer a free lunch program in the summers. Some local people have picked up that slack, running summer day camps out of neighborhood Protestant churches and the like, with a free simple breakfast and lunch provided. One such daycare was taking a group of children to the pool today. Rosie played and fought with them in the water; then they went back to their camp for more activities.

I’m not saying it’s evil to suggest that local churches should run day cares, instead of taxes paying for discount pool memberships and cheap lunches. If that works, and if you’re willing to contribute to making it work in your community, that could be a solution. As long as children are getting enough healthy food to eat and safe places to play, there are any number of right answers as to how we could best provide them. Squabbling about that isn’t wrong.

But pontificating from your place of privilege that help should be taken away because it’s simply bad to help people– that is wrong. Arguing that poor people don’t have enough obstacles and we should “honor” them by making it harder, is wrong. Yanking away support without providing an alternative because the sight of a free lunch makes you envious, is immoral. It’s a sin. Doing it all as an ostentatious Catholic is a scandal.

We’re supposed to be thinking about ways to help one another carry our crosses, not despising people for needing help.

So much in our world would be better if we could just stick with that.

(image via Pixabay) 







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