March 2022 | Volume XL. Issue 1 »

My Turn: The Cards for Kids Program and Shame

March 1, 2022
Joshua Short, Illinois Heartland Library System Board of Directors

The Illinois Cards for Kids Act allows qualifying students in pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade who participate in the Federal Free and Reduced-Price Meal Program at school to obtain a library card free of charge, even if they live in an unserved area. This law presents a myriad of challenges to public libraries but also opens up many opportunities for kids who typically could not afford a non-resident library card. However, one potential consequence of the program that may not be initially evident is the possibility for shaming.

“Lunch shaming” has been a hot topic in the news over the past few years. In some cafeterias, students who did not have enough money in their school account found their meals thrown in the trash or physically stamped with ink saying, “I need lunch money.” Another school in the Midwest had less fortunate students go to the office to get a stamp on their hand to get a meal. The schools that have adopted these policies are using shame as punishment for a situation that a child has no control over. Disassociating poverty from shame is difficult subject to discuss and an enormous issue to tackle. Growing up I was a reduced-lunch kid. Every day I had to take my 40 cents to the school office to pick up a weathered little green plastic chip, which I would then give to the cafeteria cashier for my meal. I remember the intense shame I felt walking this path, a daily routine which every single classmate and teacher knew was the poor kid parade. There was no mistaking the dirty green chip, which felt like a Scarlet Letter to me. An unmistakable glowing sign that pointed me out as someone who lived in poverty.

You’re probably wondering what all of this has to do with a free non-resident card in your library. A free non-resident card has the potential to be just like my 40 cents and that tired green chip for a hot meal—a good program executed poorly. As you begin to adjust policies to implement Illinois Cards for Kids, take into consideration how your policies can result in unintentional barriers to access as well as shaming. Remember that there is a stigma to living in poverty and that most people are reluctant to take advantage of programs that require them to disclose their financial situations. Policies like requiring a parent to bring proof of their economic status or to fill out extra paperwork to show they qualify for this card can not only be burdensome to your staff but humiliating to the parents and children. And not every parent of a low-income family can make it to your library during normal hours because they are working multiple jobs or have limited access to transportation.

As you are developing your free non-resident card program, consider the physical design. Do these cards look any different from the ones given to traditional library patrons? Do they single the free non-residents out as a recipients of a free library card in some way? Is there some flag in your system that may inadvertently suggests to library staff that these patrons are different? Ensure your free card holders are treated no differently any other patron by providing the same limitations and privileges as all other patrons with the same physical card.

Another crucial step library leaders and policymakers can take is to work directly with the local school administrators to identify eligible recipients and proactively provide these students with cards in an appropriate manner. School districts should already have a list of recipients of the Federal Free and Reduced-Price Meal Program, the qualifying criteria for the Illinois Cards for Kids program.

A suggested process looks like this: Library staff provides an explanatory document regarding the program for school staff to distribute to qualifying families. School staff can find ways to authenticate these documents via stamps, numbering, etc. to prevent/identify duplication of the document. Recipient families then bring the authentic document to the library to obtain a library card.

There are, undoubtedly, other challenges that will arise with the implementation of this program, including bigger issues like accessibility and transportation for children that live outside city or library district limits; however, integrating these practices is a start and will go a long way toward reducing the potential for shame associated with the Illinois Cards for Kids program and ultimately with poverty overall.

The library was a safe haven for me growing up in an impoverished home and, in many ways, it saved my life. It is the reason I am so involved at my own public library, the same library that I called home as a child, and with the Illinois Heartland Library System. It is my hope that, with careful, thoughtful implementation, the Cards for Kids Act will provide the same opportunity for safety, learning, and equality without becoming another little green chip. With your help, an inclusive, shame-free environment where children can discover all that their library can offer them, is possible.

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