Republicans like to talk about streamlining government and reducing bureaucracy — except, it seems, when it comes to being sure that poor children get enough to eat. Then — particularly for Republicans in the House — the more bureaucratic obstacles they can put up, the better!
It's amazing how inventive Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.), who chairs the House subcommittee responsible for child nutrition programs, is at layering on administrative barriers to children getting nutritious meals year round.
For starters, he would weaken a successful program that allows schools in very-low income communities to use eligibility for other federal assistance programs, including food-stamp (SNAP, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) eligibility, to identify a subset of the students who would be eligible for free school meals in a school, instead of requiring individual applications. There are more than 8 million children who now benefit from the Community Eligibility Provision, which allows every child in a school in a poor neighborhood — where 40 percent or more of the children are identified as participating in other federal assistance programs — to get free school breakfasts and lunches.
The Rokita bill would impact 7,000 of the 18,000 schools currently participating in the program, according to a new report by the Food Research and Action Center, by raising that threshold of identified students to 60 percent. The result would be more paperwork for parents and schools and millions more children with empty stomachs, unable to concentrate or learn.
In one of his more twisted bureaucratic maneuvers, Rokita would forbid schools from putting eligibility requirements on applications for school meals. The first principle of any program is to make the rules clear; Rokita wants to cover them up.
Rokita would only allow schools to offer families the opportunity to fill out applications for free or reduced-price school meals twice a year, even though families with low-incomes often see big swings in their annual earnings. He would also dramatically increase the verification of these applications for free or reduced-price school meals, making it particularly burdensome for the poorest kids — whose families are homeless, move a lot, have trouble filling out applications — to get the meals they need to grow and learn and have some chance of breaking out of poverty.
There are other ways that the bill Rokita drafted for the House Education and Workforce Committee would put barriers between children and a healthy meal. At a time when so many parents are working long hours to meet the basics, he would not allow childcare centers and homes to serve a subsidized afternoon snack. He would not allow 6-year olds to stay on the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program until they start school.
The Senate Agriculture Committee, on the other hand, has drafted a bill that makes modest improvements to the programs, with far less devastating harm, trying to make children's nutrition programs work to give kids a healthy start in life. The bipartisan draft by Chairman Pat RobertsCharles (Pat) Patrick RobertsBiden remembers Dole as 'master of the Senate' at National Cathedral Bob Dole: heroic, prickly and effective McConnell gets GOP wake-up call MORE (R-Kan.) and Ranking Member Debbie StabenowDeborah (Debbie) Ann StabenowMichigan Republican John James 'strongly considering' House run Updated reconciliation text includes electric vehicle tax credit opposed by Manchin Stabenow calls for expansion of school mental health services MORE (D-Mich.) keeps the Community Eligibility Provision in place. It allows those 6-year-olds to get help from WIC until they go to school and provides the additional snack for children in childcare for long periods of time. And it helps expand an option for families over the summer months for them to receive SNAP-like cards to feed their children when school is out.
However, the Senate bill still includes similar punitive verification procedures. It seems that too many Republicans are more worried about the occasional family whose children get affordable meals that they might not qualify for than the millions of children whose future is robbed because they are too hungry to learn and to grow. We don't see Republicans pushing punitive measures that would deny small business administration loans to the great majority of honest small businesses, because of the few that misrepresent their finances. And we shouldn't. We shouldn't punish millions of kids for the sins of a few parents, either.
Budgets are about more than numbers — they are about values. Members of Congress who value the future of our children should make it possible for the children in every struggling family to have access to affordable, nutritious food at school and throughout the year.
Kirsch is a senior adviser to People's Action Institute and a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.