By LaKeshia Myers
If one were to think back to their high school history class, you may remember seeing photos taken during the Great Depression. Most often you will recall photos of hungry children, destitute families, and somber pictures of men standing in soup or bread lines awaiting their next meal. What you might not have noticed was that the majority of those photographs were of white Americans.
While the majority of depression-era photos can be attributed to photojournalist Dorothea Lange of the Farm Security Administration, her choice of subject should not be dismissed.
The photos Lange took spoke truths about America during that time; they also aided President Roosevelt in building public support for his New Deal Programs. Public empathy and support for New Deal Programs led to the introduction of several government stabilization programs introduced in near rapid succession between 1933-1939.
The media’s image of poverty shifted from focusing on white Appalachian farmers and on the factory closings in the 1960s to a more racially divisive and negative image of poor blacks in urban areas. All of this, according to political scientist Martin Gilens, led to the American public dramatically overestimating the percentage of African-Americans in poverty.
By 1973, in magazine pictures depicting welfare recipients, seventy-five percent featured African Americans even though African Americans made up only thirty-five percent of welfare recipients and only twelve percent of the US population.
Fast forward to the 1980s when Ronald Reagan introduced the term “welfare queen” into popular lexicon; from this lens the face of poverty took on a new image—derogatory trope conjured images of poor black women, with multiple children, who refused to work and gamed the system. Even today, when discussing social programs this is who and what comes to mind.
Last week the Assembly Education Committee met to discuss AB84, a bill to end lunch shaming in Wisconsin schools. After hearing testimony from many citizens statewide, it was interesting to see that some members still felt as though a child having their lunch denied, taken away, or in some cases thrown away because their parents couldn’t pay was alright. One member suggested that students’ “get a part-time job” to pay for their own lunches while a representative for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards said the burden of feeding each and every student would cause undue financial burden on schools.
As a supporter of AB84, I have continued to draw comparisons between Milwaukee Public Schools and other districts statewide. While Milwaukee is often seen as the “problem” by many who work in the capitol, on this issue, they are the model and should be lauded for their forward thinking and proactivity.
Beginning in 2014, Milwaukee Public Schools has guaranteed that every child enrolled in the district has access to free breakfast and lunch through a USDA program. This has not only improved attendance, but boosted academic outcomes.
Across the state, there are forty-five eligible school districts where forty percent of more of their students qualify for free or reduced lunch—this is the threshold to apply for district-wide free breakfast and lunch—and none of them participate. Most of these districts are “out state” and their populations are primarily white. If those forty-five districts participated, this would guarantee an additional 34,303 Wisconsin students at least two meals per day, with no cost to their families.
It is time for all members of the legislature to reflect and truly understand what poverty looks like and exactly who it impacts. It is not primarily an urban issue. Rural poverty is real and I can only hope that those living in these communities begin to hold their legislators accountable.