Government Good Intentions Edge in on the Family

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Breakfast in school for lower-income children is not a public policy that many people are inclined to spend time arguing against, this author included.  That said, something in Bob Plain’s RI Future article promoting the program is worth highlighting:

Too many schools in Rhode Island are leaving federal money on the table when it comes to providing free breakfast to their students,” said Governor Gina Raimondo, who recently visited Veazie Street Elementary to draw attention to its breakfast program. “We know students can’t do their best work if they’re hungry.”

We should be careful not to lose the distinction between two things in the governor’s statement:

  1. Students who are well fed do better in school.
  2. Schools are missing out on money.
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While I’ve forgotten the details, I recall from local discussions some years ago that districts can make their food programs into a bit of a profit center.  On the money front, the range goes from a well-intentioned effort to secure funding in order to feed children who otherwise wouldn’t be fed to a more-cynical plan to maximize money for the district for whatever purposes districts use money (mainly personnel).

Wherever a particular advocate or school district falls in that range, however, we ought to spare some sensibility to be shocked at something that is never mentioned in this context.  Nobody appears even to think of the possibility that some of the students for whom districts could collect money are adequately fed at home and that, by pushing the program, the government is pulling children away from a potentially family-boosting interaction.  At the very least, they’re transferring some of the child’s sense of who provides for him or her from the parents or guardians to the government.

We see this with government-subsidized child care.  On average, studies suggest that students receiving such care perform worse, particularly in behavior, and one explanation is that they draw children into a classroom setting instead of leaving them with parents, grandparents, or other individuals with direct relationships with the children.

We’re far too cavalier about the potential side effects of using government as a cure.



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