The Ethical Spectacle, May 1995,

School Lunches, Caring and Honesty

In most ways, it is what we do, not what we say, that counts. One man may talk all day long about equality of opportunity, while another is silent, but hires a far more diverse workforce in his business. Another may trumpet how much he loves his children, but a glance at them tells you they are unkempt and miserable.

It is hard to see how we intend to be the "society of opportunity" called for by the Contract Republicans without school lunches. Hungry children cannot concentrate, and will not make the test scores of their more well-fed fellows. If we must close the door on the form of affirmative action which is better known as preference or reverse discrimination, are we not honor-bound to solve the problem upstream, by giving poor children a better chance to concentrate and to make the same scores? The link between income and test scores has been so clearly established. Though not the sole explanation, material comfort is a major contributor to the peace of mind necessary to succeed. No matter what our feelings about other benefits, even welfare, it is hard to imagine money better spent than that committed to school lunches.

Supporters of the House's actions point to the fact that the lunch program is not being destroyed; the money is being turned over to the states in the form of a block grant. The morality of block grants deserves an article of its own, but there are at least two issues that establish that block grants are not the moral equal of a lunch program.

First, the lunch program was an entitlement. This means that every child who qualified was entitled, and enough money was appropriated yearly to cover them. By contrast, a block grant is good for as long as it lasts. When it is spent, it is gone, even if there are qualifying children as yet unfed.

Second: it may not be true everywhere, but in many regions of the country, my own included, the more local the politics, the more corrupt it is. In New York City, school supplies walk out the back door of the warehouse, and no-show janitors tend their sailboats, while the schools fall apart. There is no reason to feel confident that a block grant here, or in many regions of the country, will actually result in the feeding of any children.

The doctrine of state's rights is often sympathetic, but even the Contract Republicans believe that certain issues are too important to be left to the states. The Contract provided that women under eighteen who had children could not receive welfare benefits (this has since undergone a political alchemy where the states are discouraged, not actually forbidden, from granting benefits to such women.) Similarly, the Contract Republicans believe that common law litigation such as accident and product liability cases, are fit subjects of federal law, though the states always had control of them before. Many Contract Republicans privately believe that abortion should not be left to the states. In general, talk of state's rights doesn't really mean, let's let the state decide, no matter what direction that takes us; what it really means is, we are confident that the state legislatures these days are as conservative as we are, so we can eliminate federal programs without really seeming to.

Republicans and Democrats seem to agree that elimination of welfare benefits under the AFDC modifications proposed in the Contract With America would affect five million children (New York Times, Dec. 30, 1994). What they cannot agree on is the result. The Democrats believe that five million children will suffer, while the Republicans believe that private charities and the states will pick up the slack, or that millions of parents who couldn't before will learn to support their children. Well, all one can say is that, over time, all consequences become known, and that within a few years we will know where this has led us.

The Republicans have been very adept at identifying waste or unfairness in federal programs. While paying lip service to the social goods these bad programs were intended to advance--combatting poverty, promoting equality--they insist that these misbegotten, dishonest, fat programs are accomplishing the opposite. And they abolish them, putting nothing substantive in their place. If you really mean that poverty means nothing to you, that equal opportunity is unimportant, shouldn't you say so? If you really care about these goals, shouldn't you advance ways to solve the problems more effectively, upstream at the source where they can be combatted? Where is the Republican Party mission in the ghettoes? How does the Contract With America promote ways to increase the test scores of poor children, so that preferences will never be held necessary by anybody? School lunches would have been a good start.