Morris: Schools and Gastronomic Egalitariansm
by Leo Morris
There is no such thing as a free lunch.
Yeah, well, about that.
According to news reports, students in Fort Wayne Community Schools (FWCS) will receive both free lunches and free breakfasts starting next year. Not just middle and elementary students, as it has been since 2014, but high school students as well. And not just economically deprived students — all students, regardless of the ability of their parents to pay.
“Free,” we all know, is a relative term. The students and their parents may not pay for the food, but somebody does. Such largesse is possible because under U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines, more than 40 percent of FWCS students qualify for government benefits of one kind or another. That means the tab will be picked up by tax dollars, which means all of us pay.
And as political observer P.J. O’Rourke has said about health care, if you think it’s expensive now, wait till you see what it costs when it’s free. A government that will give something to everybody when only 41 percent qualify isn’t too worried about the bottom line. Whatever estimate the government comes up with for the cost of this program, quadruple it and you won’t even be close.
Of course, the facts that somebody has to pay and the bill will be high do not in themselves negate the intent of the “free lunch” warning. What that adage is meant to convey is that those who actually receive the benefit — the students in this case — will actually pay a price, however hidden.
There is no agreement over when the sentiment was first expressed or how the exact wording came about, but most sources agree that the saying originated with the practice of 19th century American taverns offering a free lunch to patrons who bought at least one drink. Someone who ate was more likely to order more drinks, which would cost more than the food would have. This was especially true if a crafty tavern owner served a lot of salty food like ham and cheese and, yes, even peanuts.
So, what hidden costs might our students be paying? What salty foods are they being slipped?
The goal of the government’s gastronomic egalitarianism, we are told by those who support it, is the self-esteem of poor students. “Forcing kids to identify themselves as poor results in lasting shame and harm to fragile psyches,” says David Sandman, president and CEO of the New York State Health Foundation . . . “When all kids have access . . . the stigma and shaming disappear, and more students participate. . .”
A little secret, Mr. Sandman — students in school know a whole lot about each other, including those who are poor and those who are not.
Just imagine the message that is being sent. To the well-off student — you are getting something you are not really eligible for, so enjoy your superiority. To the less-well-off — the privileged are once again getting something they don’t deserve, and we’re screwed again.”
Instead of bringing the students lovingly into the “we’re all in this together” circle, might we actually be reinforcing and even exacerbating their unhealthy group identities?
Not possible? Government programs hardly ever have unintended consequences, especially those that are the opposite of the ones envisioned?
Then let’s salute our crafty federal tavern owner for the intended consequence: Another generation that sees government as an endless source of benefits that never have to be earned and no one has to pay for. Lunch isn’t just free. It’s our unlimited right.
But a small warning:
We might not get everything we pay for in this life. But everything we get we pay for, sooner or later, one way or another.
Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is this year’s winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.