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The Butterfly Effect

February 9, 2011

There’s a pretty sad article in the New York Times today regarding the city’s school lunch program, which is on track to be $8 million in arrears by the end of the school year.  The Education Department collects money from public schools, money that those schools are supposed to get by charging $1.50 per student per meal.  Of course, many poor students get meals at a reduced price of twenty-five cents or for free, but the story notes that “even some of the students charged the reduced price have fallen behind.”  As a dad to a kid whose biggest problem with food is that she’s getting pickier about what kind of foods she’ll eat, these kind of stories always hit me hard.

This sentence caught my attention:

Of the city’s 1,600 schools, 1,043 owe a collective $2.5 million to the department for meals served in the first three months of this school year.

I quickly remembered why that number — $2.5 million — stuck out.  Back in January, City Council Transportation Committee James Vacca fought off a proposed twenty-five cents parking meter increase for outer borough residents.

Meter rates would have gone up from 75 cents per hour to one dollar per hour. Now those rates won’t go up until July 1 at the earliest, pending another round of budget negotiations before the next fiscal year. Deferring the parking rate increase means the city has about $2.5 million less to spend in the current budget.

Of course, there’s no single source of or fix to our city’s fiscal woes.  The $2.5 million could just as easily come from different or higher taxes, slashing another part of the budget, raising fees on city services, or other revenue generation.  And even if the $2.5 million could be erased, there’s still a lot of lunches left to serve until the school year ends.

I’m not at all asking drivers to shoulder the entire burden of paying for city services, but the symmetry of the numbers is striking.  While not all car owners are wealthy, I can’t imagine that a large number of people who can’t even afford twenty-five cents for their kids to eat lunch are also car owners who can’t afford twenty-five cents more to park.

But that’s where we seem to be in our current state of affairs right now, where politicians do what’s best for small constituencies and where a lack of any sense of mutual responsibility seems to be the new normal.  In a city with so much, is an extra twenty-five cents per hour when you park your car too much to sacrifice so that poor school kids can eat lunch?

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