United States Senator Al Franken was in Minnesota yesterday promoting an idea to provide free lunches to more students in US schools. I support the idea. In fact I support free lunches for all students in public schools, rich and poor alike. Our public education should be as equal as possible and the simple matter of providing meals as a part of school programs should be routine. But that’s another story.
Instead I want to focus on what was said today in opposition to helping poorer kids get school lunches. Better, more thoughtful counter-arguments exist to the rabid complaints raised on the radio, but the people who need to hear those arguments seem unwilling to listen or unable to understand. In just 15-20 minutes, I heard enough arguments — all of them angry — to give me plenty to discuss without getting too deep anyway. Nothing wonkish here. Let me try to counter the “starve the kids” rally with a little common sense.
First, I am presuming that the people arguing against free school lunch are politically conservative, you know, the thoughtful “Starve the Beast” people who don’t understand government, history, economics, and so on…
Ok, I understand that this is not necessarily the case — there are indeed more reasonable people who don’t believe in a “free lunch”, literal or otherwise — but as you’ll see, the substance of the arguments I heard today betray a strong right-wing slant that isn’t really well thought out.
First on the list is the argument that kids shouldn’t be given free lunch is the position that the kids should work for it; they should earn what their parents cannot — or will not — provide. I find this argument flawed on many levels. First of all, it isn’t a child’s fault that he or she is born into a family that struggles financially. People on this side of the argument tend to see a character-building lesson helping the disadvantaged children. Experts see things differently. Kids are affected by image and stereotype in both the short term and long term. But that’s too nuanced for the some to understand. Can’t we just agree that school should be a positive experience, not one that punishes kids for grown up problems?
Let’s say you think working for your childhood friends — the people schools should foster as peers, not segregate into classes — is a positive experience, how does this work as a practical matter? In some schools two-thirds of the kids would be taking out the trash, busing tables, and sweeping the halls! Is that practical? If you really want to help kids learn lessons of work and responsibility, give them an education and a chance to apply that education. Once we had the Comprehensive Education and Training Act (CETA) that promoted exactly that. Unfortunately, CETA fell victim to the anti “Big Government” arguments in the post-Carter years and exaggerated examples of waste.
And what about those child labor laws? Or labor laws generally? Perhaps we have given up on taking these seriously altogether, but what work could a child do that is worth 40 cents an hour? Prisoners get paid better. And if I am a rich kid and I want to pocket mom and dad’s lunch money, can I work too? Soon Nike will be making shoes in America again…during that hour a day once dedicated to civics and social studies. Might as well chuck science, too. (Don’t most good boys and girls go to church?) Kids have better things to do. They can salvage metals from recycled electronics parts and earn a dime.
The second argument today against helping poor kids eat lunch is the efficiency argument. Government, they tell us, is inefficient. Look at what school administrators are paid! Well, if you are a fortunate public school administrator, you might earn a six figure income. That’s “extravagant” only because they are public employees and everyone knows that government employees are overpaid and lazy. Paying a public employee is nothing more than an assault on personal freedom. (So by all means, punish the kids…)
But wait a minute, w hat about top heavy executive costs in the private sector? It isn’t a cost? Well, of course it is! That money isn’t “trickling down” to the workers and the middle class. Just the opposite. It’s being confiscated and hoarded at the top. Furthermore, make no mistake about it, the increase in wealth and compensation among the executive class today is a matter of public policy. Whether it is direct tax benefits or subsidizes to the businesses they oversee, this class of workers enjoys public benefits that most others do not, especially kids. The very survival of today’s unbalanced economic order enjoyed a life-saving subsidy — remember the bailout? — of hundreds of billions of dollars. Financial sector CEOs like Dimon and Blankfein lost billions and we gave them billions more to make them “whole”. It was $167 billion, to be exact. I am unaware of any school lunch program coming even close to that sort of inefficiency. And if a lunch program does come up short we might as well make it up on the backs of hard-working middle class managers, right? Meanwhile, over in the so-called private sector — and as a matter of policy — we support the exorbitant compensation of people responsible for those billions in losses. Does this seem right?
No body squawks about top-heavy administration costs in the private sector. Consider that on average an American CEO gets 400 times the pay earned by workers and one has to wonder why. In recent decades have the workers come out ahead in some way that should reward the CEO? No, of course not, and let’s not pretend that the CEO cares about this anyway. The incomes of Amerian works have flat-lined while executive compensation has soared. What has changed, the markets or the way we manage the markets?
We keep hearing — as almost an excuse or justification — that a CEOs responsibility is to the investors. Fine. But why do we create and protect a system that enables these huge financial rewards when it doesn’t benefit society or the economy as a whole? Revenues outpace growth to the benefit of the few and the cost of the majority. Perhaps if we restored some sense of public responsibility to public policy — rather than turn it into a tool to serve the most fortunate — we would need fewer free lunches in school. Perhaps we might even be able to pay for lunch for all! Just a thought.
Whatever it is, don’t ever forget, the fact that public schools struggle financially is a choice. It is a matter of public policy.
So what do we want? Do we want healthy kids getting a good education so they can better themselves and society or do we want to shift the burden of our mistakes down to them so they can learn a “lesson” about our mistakes? Some would say make the little buggers work! Teach them a lesson! Damn, little shits! Or cut the pay to teachers and administrators, those damn takers! It sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? It is ridiculous and it is a sign of how petty and pathetic we have become…correct that…it is a sign of how petty and pathetic conservative thought has become. Don’t misunderstand me, “conservative” has never been synonymous with progress, but the movement has seen better days.