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Why South Dakota teachers' 'Dash for Cash' felt so gross

The Sioux Falls Stampede scramble for $5,000 showed off a broken system.

It was clearly meant to be a moment of levity: 10 South Dakota teachers scrambling on the ice for $1 bills at a minor league hockey game. The crowd at the Sioux Falls Stampede game Saturday night loved the “Dash for Cash” and the teachers who spoke with the Argus Leader said they were grateful for the chance to snag some extra money to spend on their students.

But the main reaction from Twitter users when video of the event went viral was abject horror. That disconnect between the two reactions speaks to a fundamental shift in how Americans are viewing one-off events like Saturday’s event. What were once viewed as lighthearted local interest stories are being more properly seen as workarounds for very, very broken systems.

Americans used to automatically laud these examples of targeted assistance as forms of community togetherness. You can tell as much from this quote to the Argus Leader from a representative of CU Mortgage Direct, which provided the $5,000 in single dollar bills for the event:

"With everything that has gone on for the last couple of years with teachers and everything, we thought it was an awesome group thing to do for the teachers," Ryan Knudson, Director of Business Development and Marketing for CU Mortgage Direct, said. "The teachers in this area, and any teacher, they deserve whatever the heck they get."

It’s the self-congratulatory nature of the thing that gets me. At some point, someone got the idea that this was the best way to make a difference in the community. You see, it was for the teachers’ benefit that they were made to provide entertainment, literally crawling on their hands and knees in competition with each other for the resources being offered. That double duty is clearly much more efficient than just providing teachers with a check.

The Sioux Falls Stampede’s media liaison did not immediately respond to an emailed question about just who proposed the format for Saturday’s event.

The backlash to the scramble for a few bucks is increasingly what happens when human interest stories inadvertently highlight the dehumanization of their subjects. That reaction is compounded when the issues being overcome aren’t personal failings but structural ones. When teachers donate sick days to a colleague fighting cancer, it points to the inadequacy of a world where workers can be fired for getting sick. When a little girl’s health insurance isn’t enough to cover a necessary brain surgery, leading her to start a lemonade stand for donations, that’s a condemnation of a broken health care system.

And the fact that these were teachers — and just shy of being the lowest-paid teachers in the country — really adds insult to injury. That teachers are expected to pay out of pocket for anything more than the bare minimum for their classes has been well-known and lamented for years. But they do it anyway, purchasing supplies for kids whose families can’t afford them even as they make below-the-median household income. (That feels doubly true when you consider how many degrees teachers need, putting them even further below the median average for bachelor’s degree holders.)

This is America, where nothing is given out freely, and those who need extra help have to earn that assistance.

The good news is that apparently none of the teachers walked off the ice with less than $350. I’m sure none of them regret being able to buy the things that money stuffed down their jerseys provided. But what I’m left wondering is why, if the spectacle was still deemed a requirement, was there no guaranteed donation for each teacher waiting for them afterwards?

The best answer I can come up with is that the competition on display is part of the point — and I think that’s why this video stands out among other examples of Band-Aids slapped onto long-term problems. This is America, where nothing is given out freely, and those who need extra help have to earn that assistance. And so not only are the resources being offered relatively meager compared to the overall problem, but also the message being delivered is that the workers must clash among themselves for whatever the capital-owning class sees fit to provide — and be grateful that they were even given the opportunity.