Something bothers us about the idea of a federal program to provide free breakfasts and lunches to all students in an entire school — or an entire school district — just because a relatively high proportion of students fall below a certain family income level.
First, let us say some nice things. We’re confident it’s well-intended. Clearly, young people who go hungry are liable to perform worse in school. It’s important to give kids in public schools a good shot at success — after all, it’s the bedrock of the fundamental American notion of equality of opportunity. We figure the motivation of the people behind this program is to help schoolkids get enough to eat, and get a good shot at academic success. We have no argument with the intent.
What bothers us, though, is the economics and really the basic idea. The country is in debt, and yet the federal government is going to give free lunches to the children of people who can afford to pay for them. Something seems goofy about that.
Something else, too: In an Associated Press story published in Sunday’s Mercury, Topeka school district officials said they’re not announcing which 12 of their schools the district intends to make part of the program, because, as a spokesperson put it: “We would hate to think families would try to transfer to a ‘free lunch’ school for that program, only to have it not get approved.”
Sure. Fine. But think about that a minute: There are going to be people trying to transfer to different schools in order to get their kids a free lunch. If they qualified for a free lunch, wouldn’t they already get it at whatever their current school is? So that means the people transferring to get free food would be precisely the people who don’t qualify because they make too much money.
It screams “unintended consequence” to us.
Incidentally, the current cutoff for free meals is a family of four that earns less than $31,006. Kids can get food at a reduced price if their income (for a family of four) is below $44,123.
So we’re not talking about a ton of income. We get it. There are some other reasons advocates use to support the program: Reducing the stigma faced by those kids who get a handout. (Not entirely sure about that one, but we’ll give it a pass.) Eliminating paperwork for schools. (OK…although somehow it seems to us that efforts to eliminate paperwork inevitably result in more paperwork.)
Providing breakfast and lunch at school? Absolutely. Doing so at a reduced price, or free, for poor people? Sure.
Giving away food to those who don’t meet the guidelines? Well, hmm. It gives us pause.