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In the Face of 6.8 Million Hungry Adolescents We Worry About Test Scores

October 1, 2016

Earlier this week Nation writer Michele Chen posted an article reporting on the finding that 6,800,000 American teenagers are “food insecure”. Surveys conducted by the Urban Institute indicate that millions of youngsters between the ages of 10 and 17 cannot secure adequate food on a daily basis, a situation that is difficult to fathom for the school “reformers” who assume that all children’s basic needs are being met and politicians who somehow think that cutting welfare for adults has no impact on children and families.

Ms. Chen describes how food deprived teenagers cope with their hunger… and it isn’t a pretty picture. Some sacrifice eating well to make sure their longer siblings get sufficient food, and some seek employment that takes away from their ability to participate in school activities or study. Others, though, engage in activities like dumpster diving and petty theft. And still others engage in serious crimes, selling their bodies to adults or selling drugs to peers.

Ms. Chen reports the role schools could play in this problem, especially in those cases where criminal behavior is rooted in the lack of predictable food:

Schools and law enforcement authorities, researchers say, could provide those who run afoul of the law with supportive outreach instead of arrest and detention, to avoid pushing them into the racially segregated school-to-prison-pipeline. For sexually exploited girls, especially, authorities “should be trained to recognize the trauma experienced by girls who are sexually exploited and provide counseling or referrals rather than treating them like offenders.”

But in the end, schools can only do so much. They can offer free or reduced meals when school is in session and could be hubs for services. But in the end, the problem of food insecurity for families can only be addressed at a higher level:

A deprived adolescence, however, is a window into a family affair, so government intervention should address the poverty of the whole household.Parents need living wage jobs and basic social assistance to cover day-to-day needs. Since food insecurity is often linked to housing instability, aid programs such as rental subsidies would help alleviate immediate financial pressures so families do not have to choose between a stocked pantry and monthly rent.

Hunger in adolescence marks a demographic turning point for the post-welfare-reform generation, reflecting two decades of government shoving poor parents off of federal benefits and into low-wage jobs and “personal responsibility.” The results of those Clinton-era policies are embodied in the empty stomachs of America’s hungry teenagers, who display just how much responsibility they shoulder, with no choice but to scrounge and hustle to survive. But teenagers should have more to dream about today than a hot meal tomorrow. 

When teenagers show up for school with empty stomachs it is hard to get them motivated to pass a test… but if you are a “reformer” if you see a school full of hungry children doing poorly on a test you believe the school and the teachers should be held accountable and the solution is to fire the teachers, close that school, and open a new one that offers shareholders an opportunity to make a profit. Maybe the better solution would be to fill the stomachs of the children so they can dream about more than a hot meal.

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