What Kansas Basketball Star Ben McLemore Can Teach America About Poverty

Ben McLemore is a 6-foot-5 inch phenom, a 20-year-old redshirt freshman who leads one of college basketball’s best teams in scoring, has the Kansas Jayhawks on the verge of another deep run into the NCAA Tournament, and could be the first overall pick in June’s National Basketball Association Draft. McLemore is a contender for the national Freshman of the Year award and is a finalist for national Player of the Year awards too.

He is also a product of the extreme poverty that grips millions of families across this country, a child whose mother worked multiple jobs in a vain attempt to make ends meet, a kid who often went days without food and found it “hard to play basketball when nothing is inside of you.” McLemore’s family often had to choose between food and electricity, as USA Today’s Eric Prisbell detailed in a profile of the Kansas star last week:

McLemore says the only meals he sometimes had were the free ones at school. His mother, he recalled, sometimes made the difficult decision to sell food stamps in order to pay bills.

“Sometimes we would not have food so we could keep our lights on and have hot water,” he says. “She had to sacrifice for that.”

When the family did not have hot water, McLemore remembers one nightly routine: Fill the bathtub with cold water. Heat up bowls of water in the microwave, then run them to the bathtub to make the tub water lukewarm for baths. The warmth never lasted, he says.

McLemore is months from being able to fully leave that past behind, a from-the-gutters-to-greatness success story that is so often repeated in sports. But the fact that McLemore’s family had to sell food stamps to afford light and heat, that they had to shuttle microwaved water to the tub for a warm bath, that they went days without food and slept huddled in the living room to avoid the bitter cold, is more a story of America’s failure than it is of McLemore’s success.

Our social safety net keeps millions of people out of poverty each year. It includes programs that help low-income families afford food, that helps poor children get breakfast and lunch at school. It also includes programs that help low-income families heat their homes, that help working mothers like McLemore’s afford child care, that help poor children get a better education. It includes programs that all Americans have heard of, like food stamps and welfare, and many, like WIC and LIHEAP, that go mostly unnoticed by anyone who doesn’t use them. Together, the programs form one of the stingiest social safety nets in the industrial world, and yet, it is these programs that have repeatedly faced the budget axe as American politicians keep cutting spending.

Like McLemore, there are millions of American children who face the perils of extreme poverty every day. Unlike McLemore, barely any of them will one day hit the multimillion-dollar sports jackpot that provides them and their families a way out. According to Georgia State University, nearly three-fifths of high school football and basketball players think they will get an athletic scholarship, but only 2 percent end up playing collegiate sports. Less than 1 percent receive a scholarship of any kind to a Division I school. Data from the NCAA shows that just 3 percent of male high school basketball players go on to play in college; only 0.03 percent go on to play professionally. The numbers aren’t much different in women’s basketball (3.15 percent college, 0.02 percent pro) or football (5.8 percent; 0.09 percent).

And yet, the belief that sports are the way out puts enormous pressure on young athletes, who as teenagers end up carrying the burden of being a meal ticket for their families and friends. McLemore has carried that pressure all his life. “I just want to keep working hard so one day I can help my family,” he told Prisbell. “I am going to get a big house one day and we all can stay in it and eat.” That pressure, unwarranted for teenage children, undoubtedly contributes to the failures of many talented athletes who could have made it (and even of those who do), to say nothing of what it does to the kids who never had a chance. And so every year we lose a countless number of Ben McLemores who, with a little more help, could have been scientists, doctors, teachers, or otherwise capable members of society and forged their own way out of the throes of extreme poverty.

Perhaps it is the very existence of athletes like Ben McLemore that allows us to ignore the implications of the fact that there aren’t many Ben McLemores out there and what extreme poverty and the inadequacies of our social safety net mean for those children. We watch Ben McLemore the basketball player with only a small acknowledgement of what Ben McLemore the child experienced and never make the connection that millions of other children are suffering similar, if not worse, fates with no hope that a million-dollar payday exists on the horizon.

Barring injury, McLemore will sign a multimillion-dollar contract in the near future, allowing him and his family to escape the horrors they have long faced. And while his focus, ability, and accomplishment are worthy of more praise than he could possibly receive, Ben McLemore remains the exception. The vast majority of our poor children will remain there, less likely to go to college and less likely to achieve economic or social mobility in our society. The vast majority will be poor for the rest of their lives. That we are cutting our already-stingy social safety net, that we have perpetuated the “Hoop Dreams”-style society in which millions of children think the way out of poverty is a lottery they’ll almost surely lose, is not a cause for celebration. It is an American tragedy.