Congress has to avoid universal free school meals which include wealthy
As many Americans struggle to make ends meet in the pandemic, certain members of Congress want to expand welfare to those not in need. Such lawmakers have been pushing legislation to temporarily create universal free meals for the coming school year. Their proposal eschews the basic common sense policy that free meals go only to those in need.
Senator Debbie Stabenow and Representative Bobby Scott have further asked the Agriculture Department to use an eligibility waiver of summer programs during this school year. This waiver, according to the agency, “allows all children in all areas to receive free meals.” But these summer programs are usually limited for low income areas. The agency provides numerous waivers, but it will not issue the new one. As Secretary Sonny Perdue has said, the scope of the request goes beyond what the agency “has the authority to implement and would be closer to universal meals programs which Congress has not authorized or funded.”
Lawmakers are using the pandemic as a pretext for a policy change that creates dependency instead of opportunity, and that is neither targeted nor likely to be temporary. As economist Milton Friedman once observed, “Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program.” Indeed, the current push for universal free meals builds on past efforts to get the ball going. The Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act had a community eligibility provision that makes it possible for schools and districts to provide free meals to all students if a certain portion of students are eligible.
With the last administration, the Agriculture Department had improperly expanded the provision, allowing districts to game the federal system by grouping schools together in a way that expands the number of schools eligible for the universal free meals funding. Even schools that have zero low income students could receive free meals for all students.
The charge for this went on last year, when Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Ilhan Omar introduced legislation that made no secret of its goal to provide free meals to all students regardless of family income. The bill did not advance, but progressives are still trying to get universal free meals. You know spending by Congress has gone out of hand when lawmakers think it is sensible to give welfare to everyone.
The federal meals programs, like other welfare programs, have required those receiving the benefits to demonstrate they are eligible and truly in need so resources are offered to students from low income families. The latest proposal will ignore this basic principle and expand on the terrible precedent set with the community eligibility provision.
In addition to being fiscally irresponsible, the universal free meals system will take money from low income families and then use it to subsidize high income families who have no need for such welfare. This is inexcusable in the recession. The proponents of the latest legislation assert that it would assist with the financial difficulties over providing meals in the pandemic. But if millions more families struggle to make ends meet, then we should make sure these strained federal coffers conserve resources for those in need, rather than distribute them regardless of income.
There must be concern for children from families in need. But expanding the federal meals programs to cover all students is simply wasteful. Most students who qualify for meals at their schools are from families eligible for food stamps, which could be adjusted if families need more funds to bridge them in the coming school year. Instead of finding ways to make more Americans dependent on the government, lawmakers must focus federal assistance related to free meals on families in need.
Daren Bakst is a senior research fellow in agricultural policy at the Heritage Foundation, where Jonathan Butcher is a senior analyst in education policy.