School Lunch Debt and The Need for Universal Programs

Means-tested programs are a drag on society

A recent Washington Post article revealed that children in the Washington D.C. area have over $500,000 in school lunch debt. These students accumulated the debt because they did not have the necessary funds to pay for their meal at lunch. The National School Lunch Program attempts to help the less fortunate students but some are being left behind. To qualify for a free lunch, a family of four must earn less than $32,630 a year. Any more than that, there is a daily fee to eat.

Does it seem crazy that we charge young kids money to eat lunch every day at public schools? It shouldn’t. The United States loves means-tested programs and the National School Lunch Program is the first introduction to a society that makes things much more difficult than they need to be.

The simple and obvious solution to this problem of students going into debt before they are even eligible to vote is to make lunch at all public schools free across America. This would not only eliminate debt, but it would stop lunch shaming, where students are rejected a hot lunch or not served at all. There are some school districts where students are actually forced to work off their debt by completing chores in the cafeteria. The Washington Post explains the concept of lunch shaming:

The high debt burden puts some schools in a gut-wrenching position in which school policy dictates that cafeteria workers are instructed not to give hot food to a child and to offer an “alternate meal” instead, usually a cold cheese sandwich. Lawmakers and anti-poverty activists have dubbed this practice “lunch shaming,” because other students notice what’s going on.

What has been the approach instead of simply providing lunch to every child at no cost to them? GoFundMe campaigns and good Samaritans clearing the debt for students. Sound familiar? Medical procedures and health care for those without insurance is routinely handled the same way.

The Stigma of Means-Tested Programs

In the United States, we do not have many universal programs that seek to lift all Americans. We have Social Security, which guarantees a person a dignified retirement. Then, we have Medicare which guarantees health coverage to those who are over 65. It’s no surprise that they are the most popular social programs in the country.

When it comes to other areas of of society, we tend to lean heavily towards means-tested program. Do you want Medicaid? Then, you must meet an income requirement. Otherwise, you may be out of luck in obtaining health insurance as premiums continue to rise yearly. Federal Pell grants are also based on parent’s income. Many students instead get stuck with thousands of dollars in student loans. There is also means-testing for food stamp programs and Section 8 Housing, which are at least a little more justifiable in nature.

There is a warped view of poverty in America. We look at the poor mostly as lazy people who are taking from the rest of the hard-working taxpayers. It becomes a makers vs. takers dynamic. Americans, who are barely getting by themselves feel slighted that poorer people are getting free health care and are able to send their kids to college debt free. Meanwhile, in an era of stagnant wages, a family above the eligible income limits is expected to save money to send their child to college, where costs are going through the roof.

On the contrary, those receiving help from the government in the form of Medicaid, SNAP, or Section 8 also feel shame and embarrassment. They are looked down upon by many for not working hard enough and are often solely blamed for their predicament. They hear the awful claims that they eat 5-star dinners with the help of their EBT card and obtain a nice car through welfare programs, when they are just trying to survive like the rest of us.

The School Lunch Program is the perfect case-study for this dynamic. The poorest kids are looked down upon for getting the free lunch and the kids with the reduced or full priced lunch are often saddled with debt and shame in the form of an alternative lunch.

A New Social Contract

It’s time for the federal government to create a new social contract with all Americans. Universal programs not only reduce the frictions between different classes of people, they reduce bureaucracy and are more effective in achieving their goals.

It’s time we make our tax dollars mean something. Instead of handing out billions to giant corporations, let’s make sure kids can eat a decent lunch every day without going into debt or mopping a floor after school. Let’s guarantee all Americans health care and a public education. This isn’t difficult.

Once we achieve these universal programs, it’s very difficult to reverse them. Means-tested programs are usually gutted over time because programs that only benefit the poor lack broad political support. It’s why we’ve seen welfare benefits gutted for years and are now witnessing a fight to instill work requirements on Medicaid recipients in some states. Universal programs have strong political support across all groups because everyone benefits from them. Not only do Americans support these programs, they want to expand them!

  • 66% of voters are more likely to back candidates who support expanding and increasing Social Security benefits, vs. 18% who are less likely
  • 64% of voters are more likely to back candidates who support expanding Medicare, vs. 22% who are less likely

It’s time to shift the discussion on social programs to reflect the views of the majority of Americans. Politicians like to talk about cutting benefits while handing out tax breaks to the wealthy and supporting endless wars overseas. We need to demand more from our government. Demand that everyone has a right to have health care. Demand that everyone has a right to public college. Demand that every child has a right to a hot meal at school.

M.A. in Applied Economics. I'm here to talk about economics, politics, and life. Follow me here and on Twitter @FrankLukacovic

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