Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, Susie!

Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, Susie!

The right’s startling contempt for poor children

What is it about the far right and its contempt for helping children? What kind of political movement or organization would devote a sizable chunk of its limited resources (as two of the local “libertarian” “free market” think tanks do these days) to railing against public programs designed to feed poor kids? What motivates such venom?

Whatever it is (see below for some theories) there has been a veritable flood of bile emanating from Right-wing Avenue on the subject in recent weeks. Whether it’s the incessant effort to claim that (horrors!) children above the poverty line are accessing reduced price school lunches or the mountain-out-of-a-molehill rants about a low income pre-school student and a helper’s inept attempt to get her some vegetables, it’s been hard to keep track of the articles, op-eds, blog posts, tweets that have been spewing forth of late.

And what makes it all the more disturbing is that it’s never about the children or a concern that public programs are harming them or making the programs work better; it’s all about portraying simple, wholesome and absolutely essential things like feeding kids as diabolical and corrupt Maoist schemes ordered up by some combination of Hugo Chavez and Al Qaeda.

The latest

This week, the Pope Civitas Institute even placed the following question on its website, online push poll: “Should charter schools be required to provide meals and transportation to underprivileged students?” The alleged results: 10% “yes” and 90% “no.”

Got that? Charter schools, of course, are public schools that are required by law to have student bodies that reflect the demographics of the communities in which they are located. Who would think of such a question, much less promote it unabashedly?

Consider also the ongoing obsession of the Locke Foundation with “fraud” in school lunch programs for poor kids. In article after article, in recent years, the group has never missed an opportunity to demonize such programs and to portray them as veritable snake pits of corruption. Just this week, the Locke people even had to tell us that the state of New Jersey is “cracking down on school lunch cheaters.” In the past, articles have targeted supposed abuses in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg system.

Mind you, these articles are not about allegations that public bureaucracies are serving kids lousy food full of salt and sugar and fat or otherwise doing them a disservice as happened in Great Britain a few years back; these articles are about supposed abuses by the children and their families – as in, kids whose parents make more than the designated bureaucratic definition of “poor” getting reduced price meatloaf and green beans.

Similar illogic permeates the wild spasm of coverage that Locke and The Pope-Civitas Institute have poured on the incident they both like to refer to as “Chicken Nugget-gate.” You remember the story of the pre-schooler in a poorer southeastern North Carolina county and the well-meaning but clumsy decision by a helper in the school to supplement the kid’s homemade bag lunch with a school-provided lunch that included a vegetable. In a state in which thousands of kids go to bed hungry and/or malnourished every night, this is a matter that deserves to be splattered all over Fox News and the conservative blogosphere as a “scandal”?!

Trying to understand

Understanding the motivations for this kind of determined and disturbed advocacy to undermine the feeding of children is difficult for those of us who are not predisposed to see commie plots hiding behind every state budget line item. What could possibly make grown people with college degrees and jobs think that the phenomenon of poor and near poor kids getting more chances to eat a semi-square meal is such a threat to the Republic?

For some of the real racists and extremist kooks, it’s obviously just a matter of ignorance and blind hatred. But that’s not what’s going on over on the Pope campus for the most part. These people aren’t in that league.

No, somehow, the market fundamentalists have come to convince themselves that public involvement in something as basic as school lunches (and pre-kindergarten and even education generally) is a fundamental infringement on the parent-child relationship.

It’s really the old fluoridation debate all over again. These people are so stubbornly committed to their ideology (and so massively oblivious to the myriad ways in which public structures and systems make civilized society and middle class life possible) that they would rather see children malnourished and toothless than think that they are somehow being “molded” and “controlled” by “government.”

And no matter how many times it’s demonstrated to them that public educators and cafeteria workers have no desire whatsoever to turn children into little socialist automatons who hate their parents (as if that isn’t a natural phenomenon for nearly every adolescent), the true believers on the right just can’t see it.

Reality check

So what is the response? How do we make the crusaders on the right (or, at least, the members of the public that they have confused) understand the truth?

There are undoubtedly a lot of highfalutin and policy-based responses to this madness. One can demonstrate the pervasiveness of poverty and food insecurity, the comparative pittance that our society spends on school lunch programs and even look at compelling individual stories of children for whom school meals are their only decent meals.

It might be simpler and just as effective, however, to put it this way:

Earth to the right-wing think tanks: Have any of you people ever eaten lunch in a public school? Do you know what it is like? Do you have any idea how “un-cool” it is in many places – especially for middle and high schoolers – to eat this way? Have you ever stopped to ponder the peer pressure that actually must be overcome by many kids to get access to free or reduced price lunches? Have you ever contemplated how much kids must need the food in order to be willing take such steps?

If you had thought about any of these things there’s no way you’d be embarked upon such a strange and mean-spirited crusade. Instead, you’d realize that: a) children are hungry out there and, b)  no society ever jeopardized its freedom or well-being by making sure – even at the cost of some waste and inefficiency – that all kids have enough to eat.

About the author

Rob Schofield, Director of NC Policy Watch, has three decades of experience as a lawyer, lobbyist, writer and commentator. At Policy Watch, Rob writes and edits daily online commentaries and handles numerous public speaking and electronic media appearances. He also delivers a radio commentary that’s broadcast weekdays on WRAL-FM and WCHL and hosts News and Views, a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.
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