Posted by Jay Livingston
In the US, conservatives (and others) often see social problems as matters of morality, often individual morality. (See my partly facetious 2007 post about urinals and splashing as a moral issue.)
A video clip of Kate O’Beirne of the National Review has been circulating through the leftward regions of the blogosphere. Speaking at the conservative Hudson Institute, O’Beirne complained about the sacred-cow status of breakfast and lunch programs in the public schools.
what poor excuse for a parent can’t rustle up a bowl of cereal and a banana? I just don’t get why millions of school children qualify for school breakfasts unless we have a major wide spread problem with child neglect. . . .You know, I mean if that’s how many parents are incapable of pulling together a bowl of cereal and a banana, then we have problems that are way bigger than… that problem can’t be solved with a school breakfast, because we have parents who are just criminally… ah… criminally negligent with respect to raising children.(View the brief clip here.)
Many comments on the left have deplored O’Beirne not just for her cold lack of sympathy with the poor* but for her ignorance of the pressures poor people face. However, from the moralistic viewpoint, she may be right: a parent should feed a kid at least a banana and a bowl of cereal. But what if many parents don’t give their kids even a minimum breakfast. What should the government do?
For conservatives, even ostensibly reasonable ones like David Brooks, the big problem is this: how can we instill virtue in the lower social orders? The conservative solution usually takes the form of punishing the poor for their unvirtuous behavior, an approach whose success over the past few centuries, has often been hard to discern. O’Beirne, for example, hints at criminalizing the breakfast-less household. Although this would be morally comforting to those of us who pour out the Wheaties every morning for our kids, I wouldn’t put much faith in it as cost-effective policy.
But if you frame this as a practical problem – kids not getting nutrition – you don’t have to be a genius to figure out the solution: go to a place with a lot of those kids (i.e., school) and feed them.
*An impression that is strengthened by listening to her in the video rather than just reading the transcript.