Editorial: Are School Supply Donation Programs a Good Idea?
By Brandi Makuski
The United Way of Portage County this weekend held a mass distribution of school supplies for some 1,500 local students getting ready for a new school year.
The “Project Fresh Start” program is one of hundreds like it held across the nation by any number of nonprofit organizations, typically inviting families who otherwise qualify for free/reduced school lunches to apply for free school supplies which have been donated by businesses and individuals for several weeks proceeding the event. Hundreds of children Saturday stood in line with their parents, clutching empty shopping bags to collect supplies for school, which starts up again September 3.
Those of you who grew up poverty-stricken in the 1980’s will remember standing in government cheese lines with your own parents. Heck, there were times we had nothing but thick bologna and home-baked bread for our lunchboxes. Yet mom scoured store fliers, highlighting and organizing sales and coupons like nobody’s business, and she always managed to scrape together enough money for school supplies, which, depending on the time of year you shop, are really very inexpensive.
Last week, Walmart had school folders on sale for $0.18 each. They weren’t fancy or terribly sturdy, but they work. This week the store is selling crayons for $0.50 and notebooks, cap erasers and pencils for $0.97. Big Lots, K-Mart, Target and a slew of other retailers also sell many school supplies for under a buck.
Granted, other items such as kinder-mats, backpacks, dry-erase markers and some other items sold for more than Walmart’s $0.97, and of course there’s the costs of a new fall wardrobe and shoes and school activity fees. Then, a few short weeks later every parent can expect to fork over even more for extracurricular fees, school pictures and field trips. After that of course comes the costs associated with last- minute birthday party invites, Halloween costumes and treats, then Thanksgiving, Christmas….
But that’s parenting. That’s life with kids. Sometimes we go without the brand names for one kid just to afford off-brand stuff for all the kids in the family. But when families continue to return annually for free school supplies, despite there affordability, doesn’t this perpetuate a cycle of self-entitlement? Isn’t it possible these students will one day forego budgeting for their own children’s school supplies and rely on a donation drive such as this one, thereby increasing its purported need?
And are we doing any favors for our kids, whom we claim to be teaching self- reliance and responsibility, by claiming to need a $0.50 box of crayons if we can manage to scrounge enough cash for a monthly smart phone plan?
Some could argue the program is essential for otherwise cash-strapped families in a tough economic spot. I would argue the program, which does nothing to invoke personal accountability or financial stability in a family unit, should implement a stricter standard which serves the truly needy. This program would be best suited for families whose head of household is physically unable to work, military families whose breadwinner has been stationed elsewhere over the past year, or families who have suffered a recent economic hardship, such as a house fire or financially- draining illness, or a family which has suddenly become guardian over another’s child.
I would also argue a better type of mass donation drive might be one that supplies higher- cost items (or a gift certificate towards specific items) such new shoes, a nice backpack, reading books or multi-function calculator (which can be expensive), required of older students.
When a woman gives birth to a child, it’s generally not a surprise. We women spend the better part of a year preparing to give birth, and 4-5 years go by before school expenses become part of the picture, which is plenty of time to comparison shop and clip coupons for Crayola products.
When you consider school year start and end dates are planned and available to the public several months before the start of that year, we parents should be purchasing a spare pack of crayons, pencils and other school supplies at various times throughout the year.
That’s part of our job.