Stigmatizing Poor Kids in Our Public Schools

The new Community Eligibility provision of the National School Lunch Program allows schools and school districts with a sufficient density of poor children to give out free lunches to all of their students. This is a smart change that will make the program more efficient, and it has been in the works for quite a while. Back in June, I wrote in Salon that I was surprised right-wingers hadn't thrown a fit about it yet:

Surprisingly, this rather significant change in the program has largely flown under the radar of the national political discourse. Given the recent spate of Republican outbursts regarding free school lunch, it’s a wonder conservatives haven’t yet blasted the plan as emptying out the souls of children, à la Paul Ryan, or demanded that children affected by the expansion be forced to do janitorial work to earn the lunches, à la Jack Kingston. But for the time being, at least, the anti-poor malice that tends to rally the troops on the right against stuff like this has somehow been kept in check.

This surprise turned out to be warranted, as Daniel Payne has taken to The Federalist to shed tears about Community Eligibility:

It’s bad enough that we’ll have more students belly up to the government food trough (if you’ve never had a taste of “free” government lunch, consider yourself lucky); instead, consider RPS Superintendent Dana Bedden’s positive gushing about the new program: “I like it for the health and nutrition aspect, but this also removes the stigma of free lunch. Everyone can eat.”

Ah, “stigma:” one of the last great impediments to full-blown government dependency. With all due respect to Bedden, he and the rest of Richmond Public Schools are doing a grave disservice by attempting to remove the “stigma” associated with free government handouts. While the city’s busy filling its school buildings with vermin and serpents, it might consider inculcating a modicum of self-reliance within its studentry.

This sentiment is, of course, cartoonishly silly. It's the kind of thing you might expect to show up in a Stephen Colbert monologue or an Onion piece, not something someone would publicly offer up as their view. I mean, do you really want to make poor children feel bad for eating free lunches? How exactly would a 6-year-old child come to be self-reliant? Doesn't every single child eat free lunch every single day insofar as none of them work for it? And so on.

Normally when someone goes on one of these rampages, an obvious response is to ask them to campaign against other welfare that is not associated with poor people. For instance, how about the $200+ billion spent last year in welfare programs for homeowners, the vast majority of which went to the richest 20% of families? Shouldn't we be working to stigmatize people who receive that and working to help ween them off of it? Shouldn't they be made to feel like human garbage so that they'll move off of the homeowner welfare programs? This is a fun enough game, but I won't pursue it much here.

Schools Are Welfare Programs

What I find more interesting, in the context of free school lunch crying, is the apparent blind spot of those who do it regarding what public schools actually are. When you hear people talk about free school lunches, they talk as if they have no notion of the fact that public schools themselves are just massive welfare programs.

I mean, really bask in the absurdity of the spectacle going on in all of this. We spend $12.5k per pupil each year to provide schooling for the 9 in 10 American children who attend public schools. Most of them get on the big yellow public bus in the morning, attend publicly-owned facilities, go to publicly-owned classrooms, and then receive instruction from public employees. In many cases, they also get from their schools a whole slew of extracurricular activities, from the public arts programs like band and theater to the public sports activities like football and basketball. The major part of almost every child's life in this country consists of welfare mooching off of public services.

Yet, somehow, in the context of this potpourri of public provisioning, providing free food while they are at the school is a bridge too far. You can spend $12.5k each year providing free welfare services to almost every single kid, but if you up that an extra, say, $5/day to provide food to the kids while they are at the school, then human souls become crushed and welfare dependency becomes inevitable. The public football teams and math classes do not wreck kids' hearts and minds, but the public milk does. You shouldn't stigmatize attending free history class as welfare moochery (I assume), but you should stigmatize eating a free burger as such.

Education Stamps

What's most amusing about this public schooling stuff is that even conservatives support it! The big conservative position on the giant welfare program called "public school" is that it should be converted into a voucher program. That is, instead of directly providing schooling services, governments should give parents Education Stamps (just like food stamps) that they must then spend at a privately-run school (just like SNAP recipients spend their food stamps at privately-run grocery stores).

So while conservatives simultaneously cry about the welfare moochery of (universal) free lunch at schools, their stated policy goal is to give each family $12.5k in Education Stamp welfare each year! What's more, one imagines that, in the Education Stamp world, one thing some of the private schools might do is provide universal free lunches as part of their service. Which I guess would be a problem? Or something?

What's Going On

The provided reasons for why conservatives get worked up about school lunch don't make much sense. The entirety of public schooling (which, again, 90% of children attend) is public welfare provisioning. If interacting with publicly-funded welfare programs wrecks children, a free lunch is the least of your concerns. Focusing on it with such fervor is incoherent.

But that's only if you take it at face value. The hatred of free school lunches emanates from the generalized hatred of poor people and poor people things. When you scan the cultural register, free school lunch is coded as a poor person thing and therefore people who don't like poor people things get super-heated about it. Public schooling itself, however, is not coded as a poor people thing. Both free lunches and public schooling are straight up welfare programs, but only the one coded as the poor person thing attracts the "anti-welfare" response. This is because it's not about disliking welfare. It's about disliking poor people.

The fact that conservatives look directly past a massive public welfare program in the form of public schools in order to cry about a minuscule fraction of that program in the form of school lunches makes the case for universal school lunches. Once they are universal and have been for a while, they (like public schooling itself) will stop registering in the mind of anti-poor conservatives as poor people welfare and will cease to attract their concentrated ire and the stigma that goes along with it.