We Suck At Ending Child Hunger, Fighting Illiteracy With The ‘Same Passion’ Won’t Help

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child looking at empty bowlBy the time they’re five years old, children from low-income families will have heard 30 million fewer words than their counterparts in middle- and upper-class households. Experts refer to this deficiency as the “word gap”, because that millions-of-words-sized silence is linked to academic problems that can follow a child throughout his school career. New initiatives announced by the White House this week are calling on us to attack this gap as fervently as we do child hunger, which seems like a terrible idea to me. Apparently they haven’t noticed over there that as a country, we don’t really seem to give a damn about hungry children.

According to the Too Small to Fail initiative:

When a child is deprived of food, there is public outrage. And this is because child hunger is correctly identified as a moral and economic issue that moves people to action.

Which people are these? I want to be friends with them, but they must be pretty few and far between. Right now, 16 million children live in households where they don’t always know where their next meal is coming from. And as a society, one of the primary responses to this issue is to complain about programs like SNAP and WIC and whining about how hard-earned tax dollars are being used to subsidize some sniveling brat’s macaroni and cheese. This is a society where we attempt to embarrass kids when their school lunch accounts run empty, and throw perfectly good food into the trash while they watch. This is a culture where politicians feel comfortable saying that poor kids should be forced to earn their school keep by working as janitors. And this is the country we’re asking to step up to help those same children access educational opportunities? Okay. Sounds great! Let me just hop aboard my unicorn to fly into this magical version of the USA that you’re talking about.

The word gap is a big problem, one that can set a child on a permanent path of difficult learning and limited career options. So is asking a child to succeed on a math test or an essay assignment when he hasn’t had breakfast, got a tiny Wonder Bread and Velveeta sandwich for lunch, and doesn’t expect to find dinner waiting for him when he gets home from school. But you know what the really massive problem underlying all of this is – the thing we need some White House Initiatives and media attention and Bill Gates flying out from Seattle in a diamond-crusted helicopter to fix? The real problem is that people don’t care about hungry students, about teaching low-income families how to help address education gaps, about making sure low-income students in this family have support, have access to opportunities, have their basic human needs attended to. That’s a bit wordy, and I’ll probably need a cool catchphrase to get people interested. I think I’m going to call this the “empathy gap”. Now who can pitch me an initiative on how to fix it?

(Image: jrmiller482/Shutterstock)