Free School Backpacks Worth Their Weight in Gold

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They began lining up in the darkened parking lot by 3:30 am. At least a thousand had joined their weary ranks when the doors opened at 9. They weren't waiting for a chance to trade a clunker for cash, or tickets to witness a cosmic resurrection of Michael Jackson. The Back-to School Fair was distributing free backpacks and school supplies on Saturday, and these parents and their children wanted to make sure they arrived before stock ran out.


In the seven weeks since beginning the Recession Roadtrip, chaos theory has regularly occupied my mind. But instead of the dainty flap of a butterfly, I feel like the powerful wings of an American eagle launched this economic tsunami.

In 2006, an early ripple of defaults on subprime mortgages began to deflate the housing bubble, which ultimately popped when bargain basement foreclosed properties flooded the real estate market.

In the financial sector, the housing crisis led to a massive drop in value for mortgage-backed securities, which in turn created a loss in revenue for investment groups and financial institutions holding the now-worthless products. In such a cash crunch, new lending and investment became unfeasible, which slowed economic growth and pinched businesses that relied on the financial institutions for liquidity. From large corporations to small businesses, layoffs and bankruptcies rippled down through the web of interdependency.  

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Simultaneously, as the housing crisis put a halt to new building, civil engineering and construction-related firms began mass layoffs. The widening circle of downturn then hit manufacturing plants that fabricated everything from roofing tile to piping used in heating and cooling systems. Next came those dealing in the raw materials: lumber mills, rock quarries, copper and iron ore mines.

As those shockwaves originating from the mortgage crisis rippled through the US economy, consumer spending dropped as the newly unemployed cut back on unnecessary expenses. When people stopped spending money, the circle of downturn further widened to include retail, the service and hospitality industries, entertainment, and the already-struggling automotive sector.

I had been thinking of that segment of the economy devoted to producing and selling consumer goods and services as a kind of outer ring ripple effect that began when subprime mortgage defaults dropped a 100-ton stone into the American economic pond. But over the past week I realized that I've been ignoring another ripple currently lying obscured just beyond the horizon--that of a generation whose education will be negatively impacted by hardships brought on by the recession, both as a result of schools with tight budgets having to cut programs and layoff educators, and because many unemployed parents are having trouble providing the even most basic supplies and nourishment that make learning possible.

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It reminds me of a comment by Henry Ford--as quoted by Edmund Wilson: "By underpaying men we are bringing on a generation of children undernourished and underdeveloped, morally as well as physically: we are breeding a generation of workingmen weak in body and mind, and for that reason bound to prove inefficient when they come to take their place in industry." Ford was discussing minimum wage laws, but the idea easily applies to the children of the under- or unemployed today.

At the Back to School Fair held at the Kansas National Guard Armory on Saturday, nearly 3,800 backpacks filled with school supplies had been distributed by the end of the day.  Organized and funded by a coalition of twenty non-profits and local business operating under the fiscal agent "Communities in Schools," and in partnership with the Kansas City School District, this was the event's seventh year of providing backpacks, paper, pencils, crayons, books, and other critical learning tools to the area's neediest students.

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As chairman of the Back-to-School Fair for the past three years, Christal Watson has volunteered hundreds of hours to the program, witnessing firsthand how the recession has increased need for assistance. In 2007, the fair distributed just over 2,000 backpacks. Last year, it was closer to 3,000. They had prepared 3,800 for this Saturday, and were down to a few dozen left as the line dwindled by mid-afternoon.

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Christina Davidson is a writer, photographer, and book editor who specializes in national security, terrorism, and war. She also writes for the food blog Feed The Masses. More

Christina Davidson is a writer, photographer and book editor based in Washington, D.C. She specializes in editing books about national security, terrorism, and war, but writes for a broad array of publications, including the popular frugalicious foodie blog Feed The Masses. She is working on a book based on her Recession Road Trip project for TheAtlantic.com.

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