Most of the time, when people mouth off about local politics, my basic instinct is not to listen. Almost always, it's simply a misinformed (actually, uninformed would be more appropriate) blowhard spewing about how much the Colorado Springs city government has wasted our money, and how our elected leaders are totally at fault for the budget problems.
You can try to deal with those people, but it's not worth the effort. They rarely listen, and aren't really interested in the actual story.
But I heard one ignorant comment too many the other day in a west-side supermarket checkout line, and it bothered me enough to respond to it here. Because something tells me that person isn't alone in his misconceptions. Here's what he said:
"I can't believe we're so worried about saving these community centers. If people can't be at home when their kids get out of school, they should just be responsible parents and pay for day care. I'm sure most of them can afford it, or we can let the churches do it. This city isn't hurting that bad. I'm tired of hearing all the stories about people who aren't making it. They're probably spending all their money at bars and on tattoos."
That's so wrong, it's almost worth ignoring. But then again, I've heard others say we should do away with all bus service, and that the city shouldn't be spending a penny on programs such as kids' sports.
If we were just talking about the upper-class neighborhoods, there might be more room for discussion. But for those who don't have a full-picture view of reality, and who think this city truly is economically healthy, let's check the best information available: schoolchildren who qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches, based on their household's total income. Those numbers are readily available from the Colorado Department of Education's online site here.
The facts might surprise you.
El Paso County as a whole has 109,246 students in public schools, as of the fall 2009 semester, and 37,361 get a free or reduced-cost lunch (up from 32,992 in 2008). That translates to 34 out of every 100 kids living near, at or below the poverty level (based on $20,000 or less annual income for the smallest households, and rising from there depending on family size).
But wait. We're just getting started here. Let's take out the county's four most affluent districts: Lewis-Palmer's District 38 (only 8.57 percent receiving free or reduced-cost lunches), Academy District 20 (10.34 percent), Cheyenne Mountain District 12 (14.64 percent) and Falcon District 49 (18.85 percent).
The rest of El Paso County looks like this: 61,700 students, with 31,129 on free or reduced-cost lunches. That comes to 50.45 percent.
In other words, we're already poor, folks. Whether you see it in your life or not. But just to be sure, let's narrow the focus to districts that suffer the most: Colorado Springs School District 11 and Harrison District 2.
D-11 started this school year with 29,641 students, and 14,985 needed help with lunches — 50.55 percent, and more than 1,000 over last year. D-2 is worse: 11,309 students, 7,643 on free or reduced-cost lunches, or a whopping 67.58 percent. The state average, by the way, is 38.38 percent.
Now let's talk about how well off Colorado Springs is.
When such a large chunk of the city has that many kids from households barely scraping by, the last thing we should be doing is shutting down community centers and parks, eliminating other programs, cutting bus service and, oh yeah, turning off many streetlights in high-crime areas.
It might not affect you. But we can't close our eyes and ignore those 22,500-plus kids in D-11 and D-2, plus thousands more from strapped families in adjacent districts. Also, we don't know how many of those families have younger children who haven't reached school age. These kids are our future. If we ignore them now, our community will pay for decades to come.
Granted, there are other ways of defining economic stability. But so many statistics, such as unemployment figures, aren't credible because so many jobless people go uncounted for various reasons.
These numbers, and the problems they magnify, are real.
And as for that guy at the supermarket, hopefully he knows how to read.