Tuesday, November 8, 2011

No Soup For You, eh

When it comes to the list of what government should do on behalf of citizens, the Liberal/Progressive list is long—a single payer health care system, financial security for the elderly, early childhood education, school lunches, and on and on. Progressives have argued that governments should provide these services because there is a need--elderly people would suffer without Social Security, people will die prematurely without the security of  health care paid for by the government, children will go hungry without a school lunch program.  While it is certainly true that there have always been, and always will be people who have difficulty meeting the demands of life, I have long believed that many government services and programs also provide an incentive that creates the need they are designed to fulfill. So if the programs themselves are at least partially responsible for the needs that they fulfill, it is fair to ask whether we would miss them, whether we would actually suffer if they were gone. The topic of school lunches might be instructive in this regard. And thankfully, the North American continent provides us with a laboratory in which to conduct an experiment. Or rather, in which an experiment has been continuously conducted since 1946, which is when President Harry Truman signed the National School Lunch Act, and when Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King did nothing of the sort. The United States has a school lunch program. Canada, the control group, does not.
I doubt that comparison of official government estimates of the number of children who are "food insecure" in Canada versus the U.S., or of other official statistics would provide much in terms of definitive conclusions as to the results of this 65 year experiment.  I trust that my personal experience, having lived the first 27 years of my life in Canada, and the last 19 in the United States, will be more instructive.

It is rare that people in America look to Canada for an example of a federal government that does less, but an article on the website www.parentcentral.ca states that “Canada is the only westernized nation without a national, federally funded school food program.” I grew up in Canada in the 1970s and 1980s, mainly in a small town in northern Saskatchewan, and I can confirm that my middle/high school contained no cafeteria of the sort that serves both breakfast and lunch to elementary and middle school children at the two Louisiana public schools that my offspring attend. Our school had a small kitchen with a lunch counter where classrooms and clubs could prepare lunches and sell them to students in order to raise funds for special projects or class trips, but that was small, local potatoes in comparison to the industry scale operation that is school lunch in the United States. Many of my friends carried their lunch to school in brown bags or lunch boxes, and since my family lived about a third of a mile from the school, my brother, sister and I would simply troop home for lunch where our English teacher mom and High School Principal dad would make chicken noodle soup and roast beef sandwiches for the five of us.

Our family, with its two steady incomes, was solidly middle class--as well off, perhaps even better off than most. We were never hungry. Given that, a critic might say that my experience does not negate the fact that there are people who are less well off who need government funded programs like school lunch. Not so fast. The town I grew up in had, and still has, a large First Nations population, approaching 50% of the residents. Some 2000 of those First Nations residents lived on reserves which border the town, and the problems which plague First Nations people everywhere were certainly present--alcohol and drug abuse, and poverty.  And certainly those problems also existed among the general population.  Daily, I shared my classrooms with children who undoubtedly came from households that had far less than we did. It may be that some of those students were hungry on occasion, but if they were, I don't remember it. Some of my school-age friends were not able to rise above the challenges of their surroundings and fell into depressing lives of drugs and crime. Others are healthy university graduates with spouses and children and promising, meaningful careers. I doubt that the absence of a school lunch program provided much impact either way.

Spending a few days in my old home town this past summer served to confirm my remembrances. The First Nations reserves do not look any more prosperous than they did 30 years ago, and there are still a few sad souls asking for money outside the liquor store, but chronic hunger does not look like a problem serious or pervasive enough to warrant the typical Fed response--"WE ARE HERE TODAY TO ANNOUNCE A WAR ON HUNGER!" In other words, the vast majority of Canadians are thriving, and would likely not be any more thriving had they been spared the chore of either fixing or eating bag lunches for the last 65 years.

So what's the point? Only that a modern, Western government that does not do every little thing for its citizens may still expect that those citizens will flourish. Critics might single out the Canadian example and argue that the otherwise comprehensive nature of the Canadian welfare state is what allows citizens to get by without suffering too much from the lack of a federal school lunch program. One could just as easily make the counter-case however, and suggest that the school lunch example demonstrates that without the other, often sacred elements of the Canadian and American welfare states, the citizens of both countries would be no less happy, healthy, and prosperous than they are right now.

The federal school lunch program in the United States costs about $10B a year. This is a small number compared to the tens and hundreds of billions that it takes to fund the big three—Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare, but I’m sure that any attempt to do away with it would be met with resistance not only from a financial standpoint—“It’s only 10 billion dollars”—but also from an ethical position:  “A hot school lunch is one of those things that a modern country should provide to every child who attends school. To do less would be cruel.”  The Canadian example suggests otherwise.

It will be a huge challenge for any leader to muster the political courage and inertia required to cut or alter programs like school lunch, or Social Security, or Medicaid, and either return that money to the citizens to spend or save as they wish, or to spend it on items that fall more directly underneath the constitutional purview of the United States. Those who oppose such cuts or alterations will say that we cannot afford to burden our citizens so, or that such burdens are inconsistent with our values. But we can afford the burden, and we would not betray our values to take it on.