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OPINION

Day: Free school lunch makes sense

Eli Day

Of all the desperate attacks leveled against the federal government’s efforts to put a floor on economic misery, i.e. welfare, the one against free school lunch programs is the most one cowardly and devoid of content. Under the new rules of the Community Eligibility Program, public schools serving a high percentage of impoverished children may now bypass the usual red tape and provide free meals to all of their students, regardless of income.

As districts across the state of Michigan take advantage of the expansion, the usual crop of anti-government, anti-poor mongers have begun to throw a predictable tantrum. The case they plead is as unserious as it is cruel. With near uniformity, they’ve railed against the program as more evidence of both the federal government’s fondness for waste and desire to deepen the welfare state’s hold on an already dependent public. The argument is straightforward enough, even as it carries the disadvantage of being wrong.

The point about fiscal irresponsibility is typically where the rampage begins. Upon even the flimsiest inspection, this argument quickly fails on its own merits. City after city, the program is either a proven money saver, or is expected to do so in the long run. That’s because the status quo is wildly inefficient. The bureaucracy it takes to enroll everyone is needlessly wasteful and some eligible kids inevitably slip through the cracks. Expanding the rules to include more students makes the program more efficient by cutting down on waste, not increasing it. The fiscal responsibility argument isn’t just unpersuasive, it is demonstrably false.

But losing the fight against basic arithmetic is hardly discouraging for this resilient bunch.

When the wastefulness angle collapses, opponents pivot to a hysterical tirade against the creeping totalitarianism of the welfare state. Whatever savings the expansion may provide, they’ll argue, are neutralized when measured against the ambition-suffocating consequences of extending welfare dependence to the hallowed ground of the school cafeteria.

This argument is desperate and logically tortured right from the start. To be clear, the public school system is, in effect, a welfare program funded entirely by tax receipts. If we accept the wisdom of publicly funded schools there’s no reason we should object to publicly funded school lunch. On a more mechanical note, textbook economics reminds us that modest social insurance of the free school lunch variety enables, rather than extinguishes, a family’s independence by freeing up other precious resources like scarce time and money.

As hysterical as this claim is, it brings us closer to the anti-poor malice that so clearly animates this argument. For starters, if this actually were a sincere stand against welfare you’d see it applied with more consistency to our long list of welfare programs that aren’t associated with poor people. One could crusade against the $200 billion a year we spend on welfare for the wealthiest 20% of homeowners in the form of mortgage deductions and property tax write-offs for instance. Shouldn’t we chastise and humiliate these freeloaders for their soul-crushing dependency on the almighty welfare state? The question answers itself, yet somehow it remains chic to vilify the malnourished poor for failing to reach financial independence by grade school.

Exposing how cartoonishly deceptive these arguments are shouldn’t dupe us into a naïve hope that they’ll be abandoned anytime soon. That’s because principles like fiscal responsibility and total self-reliance are only applied when it’s politically convenient to do so. But we shouldn’t be fooled: these “moral commitments” are pretend substantive points used to disguise what is clearly anti-poor hostility.

In the end, all the numbers and ideological quibbling can feel like abstractions from the simple moral dilemma we face. Every kid needs to eat while they’re at school, full stop. Any program that brings us closer to that reality should be taken up with enthusiasm. Not only would such a program be a meaningful step towards reducing the stigma of being poor in a country that vilifies anyone who is, but it brings us markedly closer to ensuring no child goes hungry in a country of such tremendous abundance.

Eli Day writes about politics, public policy and social issues.