Sunday, August 21, 2011

Free lunch for all those rich kids in Detroit public schools

Via Rick Henderson, I see that Henry Payne is trying to stir up class warfare against the rich at National Review ... by taking aim at a program meant to help the poor. Specifically, it's a federal program that would provide free lunch to every student in Detroit's public schools, whether or not they qualify for free or reduced lunches.

The post is called "Richie Rich's Free Lunch," and it gets populist from there:
Funnily enough, they failed to mention the recent $4.5 billion expansion of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, which will now provide free lunches to ALL — rich and poor, needy and non-needy — of Detroit’s 65,800 public school-students. (Detroit is one of three pilot programs starting this month for a free-for-all that will ultimately cover similar districts nationwide.)

This new program is part of Obama’s orgy of spending, a binge that has ballooned the federal budget by 25 percent since his inauguration. But the program’s logic is even more insane than the price tag: The administration says it is giving rich kids free food to eliminate the shame that less-fortunate students may feel in receiving free food. We’re not making this up.

What’s next — handing out free Chevy Volts to all 16-year olds in order to reduce the stigma that low-income kids feel driving used 1990 Geo Metros?

Does anybody but a desk-bound government bureaucrat honestly think that class stigma will disappear if you give Richie Rich a free lunch? School districts with 62.5 percent or more of students from homes below 130 percent of the poverty level qualify — a threshold Detroit easily clears with 78 percent.
I don't know if this is a worthy program or not, and I think Payne's concerns—less inflammatorily expressed—might be the genesis for a good debate: do we want to provide for families that can provide for themselves?

But Payne expresses himself in fundamentally dishonest fashion, imagining a world where gangs of rich public school kids roam the halls of Detroit High School (or whatever) fat on taxpayer-supplied baloney sandwiches. Why dishonest?

• Because do rich parents generally send their kids to inner-city public schools? C'mon. (Payne, who lives near Detroit, is presumably familiar with the situation.)

• As Payne himself notes, 78 percent of Detroit students fall below the qualifying standard for free-and-reduced lunches anyway. It's not a stretch to presume that a chunk more exist just above the threshhold. (If that presumption is incorrect, I'll happily retract the statement.) If there are any rich kids benefiting from the program, they comprise a small—and probably nearly non-existent—minority.

I can easily imagine a government program that becomes more efficient by just providing the lunch to every student instead of trying to separate out the few who don't qualify. Money, time, and bureaucratic energy are saved and a few people who don't deserve benefits get them anyway. Big whoop.

Again, I don't know if the program is necessarily worthy. But I know that Payne's framing doesn't fairly represent who, exactly, will be served by the program. Dishonest argumentation isn't very persuasive.


Notorious Ph.D. said...

I was a free lunch kid from 10th grade on. I felt no real stigma, so that part of the argument doesn't work for me. But here are a couple of other things to consider:

1. Parental stigma/reluctance: The only reason that I didn't have free lunches earlier in my schooling was that my dad was determined not to ask for a handout. I finally had to use my mom to do an end-run around him.

2. Quality and nutrition: I'd think that middle-class to wealthy parents would be more likely to kick up a fuss if their kids were being fed the substandard fare that is so typical of most school cafeteria food. Giving these families a stake in the program could improve nutrition for all students.

(Word verification = "belygo", which strikes me as appropriate to the topic, and to Joel's recent tribulations.)

Notorious Ph.D. said...

P.S. regarding my point #2: this is not to imply that working-class or poor parents don't care what their children are being fed. It's just a matter of how higher socio-economic status tends to correlate with greater parental involvement, due to issues of time, energy, and a sense that their children shouldn't have to put up with anything but the best.