In another week with more than its share of race-based strain on display across the nation, an Arkansas story was one of the saddest and most frustrating. It involved allegations of wide-scale theft of public dollars by a sponsor and administrators of a summer feeding program for poor children financed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Chris Thyer, the federal prosecutor for the Eastern District of Arkansas, announced last Thursday the indictments of three women involved in a scheme to steal money that should have gone to kids in a program to feed children receiving school lunches during the months that they weren’t in school. The alleged architect of the criminal plan is a former provider of such meals in Helena-West Helena. According to prosecutors, she then paid bribes to two state officials and in return they are alleged to have aided in her crimes in the 76-count indictment. As Thyer put it: “[T]hese three individuals and others were literally stealing money that was supposed to be used to feed poor and hungry children.”
Over two decades ago, Thomas and Mary Edsall argued in their sadly timeless book “Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights and Taxes on American Politics” that a variety of social welfare programs became racialized during the Great Society era. Newly expanded federal programs, the taxes that paid for them, and race (because the programs were seen by whites as disproportionately benefiting African Americans) all became linked together in a “chain reaction” that drove the rise of a racial backlash culminating in Reaganism. The Obama era has seen a “chain reaction” redux as a series of social scientific analyses have found that many white voters have seen recent attempts to expand the social safety net through a racial lens, making references to “Barack Obama’s food stamp program” a political winner.
The legal process will continue for the women in this case, who are innocent until proven guilty, but devastating damage has already been done as a result of the indictments and subsequent press coverage. Last Friday, it was an African-American woman’s de facto “perp walk” down the steps of the federal courthouse that graced the front page of the statewide newspaper. The region of the state in which it occurred further saturates the summer feeding scandal with race. As one Arkansas Blog commentator about the case inelegantly put it in referencing the president’s 2013 remarks about Trayvon Martin: “[W]hy don’t they have their pictures? o yeah because their [sic] all black …wonder if Obama will say these could have been my daughters/sisters/cousins the $$$ is gone.” Similar comments peppered social media about the case.
“Tragedy” is one of the most overused words in modern times. Every sad or violent event is labeled with the term by our 24-hour news culture. But, the events that surfaced this week in this federal indictment are worthy of the term in its classical form (a story in which the protagonist’s inevitable defeat by moral weakness leads to a sorrowful outcome). Because of greed, a transgression that crosses racial lines, racial stereotypes are reinforced just days after a new study finds evidence of persistent implicit racial bias in American whites, particularly those living in close proximity to significant African-American populations. Adding to the sorrowful conclusion, the scandal also works to undermine public support for a vitally important summer feeding program delivered through community organizations like those in Helena-West Helena.
Arkansas arguably remains the American state most prone to hunger. According to USDA data, 21.2 percent of Arkansas households were food insecure between 2011-2013 with 8.4 percent categorized as exhibiting “very low food security”; both numbers are the highest across the 50 states. Most at risk are children who rely upon free school lunch programs for a disproportionate number of their meals each year. When those meals go away with the closing of schools for the summer, young people’s hunger becomes more pronounced. In the summer of 2014, an astonishing 3.9 million meals were provided by the 225 Arkansas providers involved in the program, easing hunger for those young people and, because the programs also provide educational programming, reducing the summer learning loss that is at the heart of much of an academic achievement gap that grows across the years for Arkansas’s students.
That human avarice may threaten a program the children of Arkansas need so badly is, indeed, a tragedy.