Gore Vidal once wrote that we’re the United States of Amnesia. He was talking about politics. You know, how the country hated Congress when they threatened to shut the government, crash the global economy, or take your health insurance or Social Security away, but months later all was forgotten, and the sneaky bastards were sent back for another term. The country is now the same way with snow. We forget that it snowed before—that we lived through it. This winter, as the National Weather Service names each passing snow system, it’s proving an especially bad season for snow doom hype.
Here in Buffalo we’re snow people. We laugh as we watch CNN storm chasers venture out to report live from slushy streets, their brows dripping not with ice, but silly bravado. We boil up with anger when Albany bureaucrats preemptively close the Thruway, holding it hostage until the last flakes have retreated, as if we were New Jersey drivers.
On Monday this week, it snowed in Buffalo. And it was damn inconvenient. People had to bundle up and shovel their cars out, clear them off, then inch through traffic to get to work. And there were people who legitimately couldn’t go to work because of the weather. I get it. But, despite a slow and frustrating start to the day, everything was generally open and running. People could go to work and earn money, eat in restaurants, shop in stores, watch movies, get the car fixed, get their hair cut, see the doctor, and yes, send their kids to school. It’s this last one, send your kids to school, that lit social media up with a chorus of kvetches.
OK, I understand we have this thing called compulsory education. All kids have the right to be schooled. You can’t keep them home as unpaid kiddie laborers, for example. They have to go to school or be homeschooled. Compulsory education doesn’t, however, mean you have to send them to school in a snowstorm, even if schools are open. The Board of Education sent a text and a robotic phone call to parents Monday morning, making that point clear. You didn’t have to send your kids out to brave a foot of snow on Monday. Ice Troopers would not kick down your door and haul your kids away to the tundra. Parents get to make the call about things like this.
Buffalo is a segregated city. People who live just a few blocks from each other, occupy different worlds. Some people have options, some don’t. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the majority of Buffalo’s children are born into poverty.
Like the “gilded city” at the other end of the state, Buffalo is either a dynamic culturally rich playground, or a dead-end hellhole where generations are trapped in structural poverty. This isn’t “oh, I wish we had a new car” poverty, or “you can’t have an i-Phone 5” poverty. It’s a harsh poverty where families struggle to put food on the table, pay their rent, and cover their transportation bills.
Despite media hype about young white college grads moving to Buffalo to colonize “resurgent” hipster enclaves, the percent of Buffalonians living in poverty has grown by over one third since 2005.”
It’s this other Buffalo, the one we don’t celebrate or talk about, this invisible dysfunctional Buffalo, where most Buffalo Public School children come from. For many families, school plays multiple functions. Over four fifths of children enrolled in Buffalo Public Schools qualify for free or subsidized meals. For Buffalo’s poorest families, this daily breakfast and lunch, ten meals per child per week, is important. Many Buffalo Public School parents work at low wage jobs, not earning enough to afford quality child care. For them, school plays an important child-care function, allowing them to go to work. In some cases, schools provide a warm respite from chilly homes.
When schools close for the day, poor families are thrown into chaos. Low-wage hourly workers have far fewer snow day options than their salaried middle-class professional counterparts. Most low-wage employers do not provide family leave days. If you take a day off to care for your kids when schools are closed, in the best case scenario, you’ll lose a day’s wage. Again, the poorer you are, the less of an option this is. For a privileged family, that 5am school closing phone call might mean game day or family fun, but for many Buffalo families, it’s a dreaded wake-up call, forcing parents to make painful and impossible decisions.
This past Monday the schools were open in Buffalo. Enough teachers and staffers made it in to work to keep the cafeterias running, the building heated, and a baseline of classrooms functioning. We should be proud of these union workers, who like snow plow drivers, come out in a storm. Parents with options didn’t have to send their kids to school. Parents without options were happy there were open schools to send their children to. The sky didn’t fall. Just some snow.