Safford Unified School District is, once again, operating the summer lunch program.

While it’s called summer lunch, the program actually provides three meals a day, five days a week, free of charge to any child under 18, regardless of residence and family income. Adults can also purchase lunch and dinner for $2.75, $2 for breakfast.

It’s program that shouldn’t be so important in the Gila Valley, yet it is.

The most recent report issued by the Arizona Office of Labor Statistics showed Graham County with an unemployment rate of just 4.3 percent in April (3.7 percent in Greenlee County). And, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s July 1, 2018, estimate, Graham County had a median income of $48,173 ($56,298 in Greenlee County).

And yet . . .

When the Courier checked with the local school districts in 2017 on the number of students that qualify for the free and reduced lunch program during the school year, it found a disproportionate number of students requiring assistance.

In 2017, about 45 percent of Thatcher’s 1,528 students qualified for a free or reduced meal, in Safford it was 57 percent of the 3,130 student, 72 percent of Pima’s 690 students qualified, and every student — 100 percent — of the 609 students in the Fort Thomas Unified School District qualified for a free or reduced meal.

That came out to 3,567 of Graham County’s 5,957 students in public school — 60 percent — needing a free or reduced lunch.

It’s important to note that household income thresholds have to be met to qualify a child for the free and reduced meals program during the school year. For a single mother to qualify her one child for a free meal, she can’t have an income of more than $401 per week. For a family of four, it’s a household income of no more than $608 per week.

In addition, the Bulldog Pantry at Safford High School — with the help of Our Neighbor’s Farm and Pantry — fills backpacks with food for students to take home; students who, without the backpacks, would have nothing to eat for two days.

So, if about 96 percent of Graham County residents who can work are working, and 60 percent of families have a household income so low it qualified for a free and reduced lunch, it tells us we have a significant wage gap here.

We have some great employers here in the Gila Valley — Freeport-McMoRan, Mt. Graham Regional Medical Center, the local school districts and Eastern Arizona College, for example — that offer livable wages to their employees. But not everyone can work for those employers because not everyone has the required skill set or educational qualifications.

By the way, we’re not alone — virtually every part of the country is dealing with this economic disparity. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, the mean rate of pay for a low-income worker in 1979 was $9.42 an hour (adjusted for today’s dollars). That same worker today earned an average of $9.33 an hour.

Seventy-percent of total wealth in the nation is held by the top 10 percent of earners, according to the Federal Reserve in 2018, while the top 1 percent holds 32 percent of the nation’s wealth.

More than immigration, more than international trade, even more than health care, the wage gap is the most important issue facing America right now and no one in a position of leadership is talking about it.

Shrinking the wage gap will solve many of the nation’s ills — including our children’s declining performance in schools, because properly-fed children perform better — which is why we’d like to see increasing wages be the number one topic in the 2020 elections — at the national, state and local levels.

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