In 2019, a lemonade stand made national news. Two sisters – 13 year old Hailey and 11 year old Hannah – from North Carolina used proceeds from their lemonade to pay off student lunch debts in their school district. They raised over $25,000 and paid off 62% of the debt. Television networks played the segment as a heartwarming way to end a broadcast. But why do these stories get placed in the category of “county’s oldest resident celebrates birthday” or “lost dog returns home?” It’s great to see children take initiative, but why is there a lunch debt that needs to be paid in the first place? Contrary to what we might want them to be, these stories are not feel-good send offs, but evidence of a system that needs massive reform.
These sisters saw a need, and it was brave and noble of them to step up and fill that need. They helped to relieve a huge burden from a number of families, and that act of kindness deserves praise and recognition. However, it is critical to address the fact many mainstream news outlets ignore: the notion of a “lunch debt” was invented. These fundraisers are presented as children going the extra mile to help people, but coverage fails to question why the system acts in such a harmful way in the first place. If a family has trouble affording food for their children, forcing them into debt is not a viable solution. Providing school districts better funding for the express purpose of supplying meals for students in need does more to improve these students’ well-being and academic performance than leaving the problem up to two children to try and solve.
The lemonade stand fallacy goes deeper than school districts. Across the country, local papers cover children selling lemonade to pay for a family member’s cancer treatment. In 2019, three kids from Maine – Dominic, Antonio, and Sofia – moved from rental home to hotel between periods of homelessness as their mother battled leukemia. In August of 2019, they set up a lemonade stand to raise money to buy a house for their mother. With about $1,000 under their belt, their aunt clarified they’re just hoping to get enough for a rental and a few months of utilities. Across the country in New Mexico, nine year old Angel Reyes raises money to pay for his grandfather’s medical bills after the removal of a nine inch tumor left him unemployed. In Michigan in 2018, six year old Emerson sold lemonade and sweet corn from a neighbor’s farm to pay for her own brain cancer treatment.
These stories leave no doubt that kids are capable of amazing things, but it is also a stark reminder of the failures in our system that such mass fundraising efforts have to be implemented just for people’s survival. When news networks play cheerful music over scenes of pitchers pouring out bright yellow lemonade, they overlook the bigger issues of wealth inequality, homelessness, and our country’s astronomical healthcare costs.
Lemonade stands that get news attention often make huge strides towards their financial goals, but not everyone can be so lucky. There are over 250,000 medical campaigns launched on GoFundMe every year, but only so many kids with lemons and paper cups. For the small percentage of people who have successful fundraisers, the kindness from strangers can feel like a miracle. But for the countless campaigns that do not receive attention or never make their fundraising goal, there is much less to celebrate. But why must people rely on the unpredictable nature of bake sales or crowdfunding campaigns to receive life sustaining medical attention?
As every intro economics class teaches, there is no such thing as “free lunch,” both literally and metaphorically, but letting the consequences of that truism fall on our most vulnerable populations is a cruel reminder that our constitutional right to life has a price tag. The world is not fair; therefore it is the responsibility of government to make it better. Homelessness and the unattainable costs of healthcare are things that do not have to exist. Diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s are unavoidable, but the all too common situations where people go into debt, even lose their homes to pay for treatment are.
So what is the solution? How do we relieve children of the burden of making up for the shortcomings of capitalism? It will not be a short or easy road, but it is a necessary one. It starts with presenting these lemonade stands as what they truly are: acts of desperation when capitalism, when society, when our governments have failed to uphold their foremost responsibility: to ensure the wellbeing of all its constituents. We should not have to rely on lemonade stands and GoFundMe pages to supply our fellow Americans’ basic needs. The awareness that the current news segments provide are a start, but we have to start being honest about the state of things if we ever want to enact positive change.
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