Spending Millions to Fill Garbage Cans with Nutritious Meals

For most people, even those paying attention, the seemingly endless expansion of government spending and its accompanying debt is a mystery. A timely parallel might be a tropical storm out in the middle of nowhere developing into a Cat 5 hurricane. So it is with public budgets—a modest program almost unnoticed balloons into a tax-eating monster and while we can track it, who really knows how it got that way?

Happily, the mechanics of this budget-bloating are occasionally exposed to public view and it is not a pleasant sight (here and here). Perhaps the disagreeable nature of this exposure explains why the mass media prefers fluff—you need a strong stomach to watch public officials flush millions, sometime billions, down the toilet.    

A recent example of this budgets-running-wild occurred in New York City when its Department of Education announced that beginning with the current school term, all students, even rich kids in tony private schools, would receive free breakfasts and lunches. In the past “only” 75% of the city’s school kids given family poverty were eligible. Now, however, it’s free eats for all, and according to City’s estimates, this would add 200,000 pupils to the total of those on the gravy train. That’s 400,000 meals a day! The average New York family would save $300 a year with the cost of the meal calculated at $1.75.

Surprisingly, this tax-funded generosity received scant attention, and nearly all upbeat. Why the silence? New Yorkers are a savvy bunch and at least somebody should have challenged a costly endeavor that only deepened dependence on government. Is it now Politically Incorrect to insist that not everyone deserves a free meal?

Public justifications of this meal program offer powerful insights into how today’s welfare state soars out of control. Believe it or not, city officials side-stepped the increased tax burden by claiming that the expansion would not cost the city anything. To wit, since Uncle Sam currently pays for everybody’s food if 62.5% of students receive free meals due to parental poverty, the city now can collect the funding for the additional 200,000 since the city has overall reached the 62.5% threshold.  Moreover, these additional free meals did not result from actual poverty as an average person might define it, for example, a lower income. Rather, accountants discovered this “poverty” by scrutinized parental food stamp and Medicaid records. That is, thousands did not know that they were poor but, thanks to diligent state officials, they can now join the poverty club. (According to this logic, benefiting from multiple government entitlement justified even more programs.) 

Recall the days when government congratulated itself for reducing poverty. How 1960s! More telling is how free-food money is defined as “free” when supplied by Washington as if New Yorkers don’t pay federal taxes? Remember when the Rev. Al Sharpton was asked why today’s Americans should pay reparations to descendents of slaves? His response was that people would not pay; the government would send out the checks. This mentality has now gone mainstream—Doug Turetsky, a spokesman for the city’s Independent Budget Office pronounced that upping the freebies was “revenue neutral.” Did anybody phone Uncle Sam and tell him that he was now on the hook for additional millions?

Predictably, this financial shell game was obscured by cliché-mongering.  The Chancellor of the City’s schools, Carmen Fariña, announced that “This is about equity” and “all communities matter.” For Mayor Bill de Blasio who is up for re-election this year, free food was part of his “Equity Agenda.” He also explained that “We know that students cannot learn or thrive in school if they are hungry all day,” and “Free school lunch will not only ensure that every kid in New York City has the fuel they need to succeed but also further our goal of providing an excellent and equitable education for all students.” This is an audacious lie: the city has unsuccessfully spent billions trying to improve educational outcomes but, finally and at long last, we have the cure—free food. Brilliant! No doubt, with the free food trucks on the way, race-related differences in academic achievement will soon vanish.

How giving meals to rich kids gratis promotes “equity” seems unclear and a better argument would be charging rich kids more would better promote fairness (how many New Yorkers can, in fact, define “equity”?  Technically, of course, the wealthy will eventually subsidize these “free” meals since they—unlike the indigent--actually will pay income taxes so an honest characterization of this program is not “an equity agenda” but income re-distribution as in socialism but de Blasio obviously eschews that more accurate label.  

What makes this supposed generosity especially stupid is that it doesn’t work. Since the Healthy, Hunger-Free Act of 2010 school meals must satisfy strict nutritional standards on such things as fat and sodium and, as we all know, adolescent don’t want more fruits and veggies; they want cheeseburgers. The upshot, predictably, is that fewer and fewer youngsters avail themselves of the free meals. And since these uneaten meals must go into the garbage, spending yet more on “free” meals only means more high-nutrition garbage (the estimated waste is $1.2 billion a year [cited here]). In fact, administrators tacitly acknowledge this extensive waste when they aver that students are provided with meals; nothing said about what’s eaten.

Now, while we can all agree that Harvey and Irma victims might justifiably receive free food, why should thousands of school kids (including every school-enrolled youngster in Boston, Dallas, Chicago and Detroit) benefit from such largess? Are we in the midst of an epidemic where millions of American youngsters suffer from malnutrition or live in homes bereft of food?   

The logic for taxpayer generosity is a bit more complicated and, to be blunt, dishonest. First, nobody is claiming any nutritional justification for this generosity, for example, youngsters that suffer from calcium deficiencies and thus need government-supplied milk. Nor is there any claim that parts of the U.S. now resemble Third World countries like Somalia where starvation promotes deadly diseases. But, a “disease” exists that allegedly adversely affects millions of youngsters—shame. That is, lots of youngsters refuse free food since this would stigmatize them and thus would rather go hungry than be ridiculed. In an odd sense, being offered a free meal triggers an eating disorder whose cure is to provide free meals to every student in the school.  Yesterday’s war on hunger has become today’s war on shame.

It does not take much to see where all this might lead given that adolescents are easily shamed. No doubt, a few dread coming to school with last year’s Air Jordans while others are short and fat. This campaign is totally open-ended and who knows where it will go next? This is egalitarianism on steroids to create a Utopia where nobody worries about being shamed.  

To be sure, the City’s free meals program is only one of thousands of such entitlement programs and, in the grand scheme things, small potatoes. But, its operation is undoubtedly typical of many other programs that, like small tropical storms, grow into Cat 5 financial hurricanes. The pattern is a universal one: start with a modest low-cost idea (a free lunch for hungry kids); gradually expand its scope (add breakfasts); include more recipients (lower eligibility standards); insist that the costs are minimal (somebody else pays); and justify the program’s existence with high-sounding verbiage (kids can’t learn on empty stomachs). And then obscure it all with nice-sounding lies.

And, it seems to work--as of now, de Blasio looks like a shoe-in for re-election.

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