By Tom Conway
USW International President
Robert P. Ford Jr. went to a community football game on a cold fall night three years ago and wondered why so many high school students sat shivering in the stands without coats or socks.
When he learned their parents couldn’t afford these basic necessities, he launched a charity, Forever R Children, that now delivers food, clothes, toothbrushes and other help right to the doorsteps of struggling families in Akron, Ohio.
But goodhearted volunteers like Ford, a production worker at Goodyear and member of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 2L, cannot save all of the country’s vulnerable children on their own.
As America gears up for historic investments in roads and bridges that will modernize the nation and revitalize the economy, it also needs to build out the social infrastructure that will empower all citizens to share in the prosperity. President Joe Biden’s American Families Plan, now before Congress, offers opportunities to meet the needs Ford encounters daily and provide widespread support to children and their families.
“If we want people to do better, we have to help them do better,” observed Ford, who operates a food pantry and clothing closet in one middle school, runs pop-up distribution centers out of a donated trailer he takes on the road and delivers emergency supplies to families’ homes.
Ford, recently named a USW Cares Jefferson Awards recipient for his philanthropic efforts, noted that fellow members of Local 2L also contribute money, supplies and time to Forever R Children. Together, thanks to a USW contract that enables these workers to support their own families while reaching out to others, they’ve helped many of the city’s disadvantaged residents survive.
Yet life for Akron’s kids gets ever grimmer.
Decades of corporate greed and the loss of union manufacturing jobs in Akron and other cities broke the middle class and trapped millions of Americans in poverty.
Now, many parents juggle multiple part-time jobs that pay low wages, labor in temporary positions providing no security or benefits, or even log overtime at full-time jobs without making enough money to meet their expenses. The pandemic just exacerbated the crisis.
“Am I going to pay these bills or am I going to get groceries?” Ford said of the predicament facing many families. “They’re having, right now, to choose.”
“We’re supposed to be a powerful country, a rich country. But our people here are poor. That’s crazy,” added Ford, who recently provided a used car to an Air Force veteran and widowed single dad who works overtime at a $10-an-hour, full-time job but still couldn’t afford a set of wheels.
Ford strongly supports a national infrastructure program, already passed by the Senate and awaiting action in the House, that would make unprecedented investments in the nation’s crumbling roads and bridges while also upgrading water systems, communications networks, school buildings and other facilities. These improvements have the potential to create millions of good-paying manufacturing jobs and jump-start the economy.
But long-overdue upgrades in physical infrastructure will most benefit the nation only in tandem with equally bold investments in social infrastructure that level the playing field for victims of the long-broken economy and empower all citizens to bring their skills, ideas and experiences to the table. Children need roads out of poverty and bridges to stability so they become productive citizens and help build a stronger America.
The American Families Plan would pave the way forward, and Congress already has begun working on legislation to implement key pieces of the proposal.
Biden’s plan would provide subsidies for affordable child care, freeing more parents to enter the workforce and earn money to support their families. A national family and medical leave program would provide further support, enabling moms and dads to care for ill children and then return to work as soon as they’re able.
Biden also proposed continuing the enhanced child tax credits he introduced shortly after taking office in January, leaving parents with more money for staples like socks, coats and food.
This wouldn’t just help families meet immediate needs. Research links this kind of income assistance with long-term benefits, like improved test scores and high school graduation rates that equip students for future success.
In addition, Biden advocated the expansion of a summer meal program that’s been shown to provide families with healthier diets and improve their overall level of food security. And he wants to allocate more funds to repair deteriorating houses, so fewer children play in rooms coated with lead paint and more sleep with good roofs over their heads.
Ford knows these interventions would put millions of students on paths to better lives. Children who arrive at school with empty bellies, for example, will have a difficult time staying on task how matter how modern their classrooms.
“You got to have food to learn,” he said, noting students at one local school began leaving fruit cups and other snacks on a cafeteria table so less-fortunate peers could fortify themselves. “A lot of these kids, they need nourishment.”
For too long, he said, the nation’s elected leaders neglected working families while giving rich people and corporations tax breaks “big enough to feed the whole city of Akron.”
He can only help so much with his trailer and band of supporters.
“Government is supposed to be doing this,” Ford said.