Feed the Poor? - Maybe Not

December 10, 2010
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.


brandsinger said...

Jay - Your argument boils down to this:
Hurray for the "pragmatic" liberal solution -- just feed the kids breakfast in school. Booo to those hard-hearted conservatives who righteously see everything in "moral" terms. So tidy! So satisfying! Yet much too distorted and narrowly framed.

In a nutshell, conservatives have an ideal -- a society of responsible citizens who work hard and feed their families -- with kids being cared for by responsible fathers and the responsible mothers to whom they are married.

Conservatives see liberals, on the other hand, as being enamored of an alternative ideal -- a society with legions of people working for the government (post-office, public schools, health centers, welfare offices, federal agencies, etc.) regulating more and more aspects of civil life.

It's a clash of ideals. School breakfasts courtesy of a government program is seen by conservatives -- philosophically -- as one more step toward the relentless shifting of decision-making and responsibility from private families to government agencies. It's a convenient means of pragmatically undermining one ideal and advancing the other.

Now your position -- just feed the kids breakfast at school -- sounds like a "pragmatic" solution -- when in the larger context of cultural and civic values -- it is a means of reinforcing the liberal culture described above. More breakfasts courtesy of the government means more shifting of resources to government, more government employees, purchasing by the government, decision regarding nutrition -- by the government -- and higher taxes on private citizens to support these activities. Is that beneficial to American society and a bolstering of its civic health and future stature? You say yes. Conservatives question that... and argue against it.

It's a clash of cultural values. Pragmatism and "morality" are your convenient labels.

cheers and happy holidays.

Bob S. said...

I'll be the cold hearted conservative here.

How many of those kids on the breakfast and lunch programs have cell phones?

How many of the live in homes with a television set? Usually with cable or satellite service?

How many of them live in homes where the parents, heck often the kids also, smoke cigarettes?

Drink alcohol? Gaming consoles? Computers?

How many live in homes where the family car have new rims or a really boss stereo system?

What should the government do?

Isn't the government the people?

When you look at this as a practical problem from a cultural issue, it becomes apparent that reliance on the 'government' is not working to reduce dependence.

It is creating generations of people who rely not on themselves, their efforts.

It is creating generations of people who indulge themselves rather than provide the basics.

Now this doesn't apply to all of the poor but wouldn't you say that it applies to a majority?

PCM said...

I think there is a worthy philosophical debate about the roll of government and culture in society vis-a-vis poverty.


[Though I suspect a lot of people who say the poor just don't try hard enough don't hang around enough poor college students. I have no idea how some of my students survive in New York going to college and making $20,000 a year. But somehow most of them do.
And truth be told, many resent other poor people who get government handouts. But no, Bob, your description is not accurate for most poor. Some poor, yes. But not most poor.]

But is it fair to punish kids because they have bad parents who can't put breakfast on the table? I don't want to discuss a clash of ideals if kids are hungry.

Is the problem simply that liberals won't say there is such a thing as bad parents? I'm liberal and I'll say it: some parents are bad. Some bad parents are too mean, drugged out, or stupid to feed their kids.

Now can we feed the kids?

Here's what I don't get about the conservative vision: There's always talk about the "deserving poor." But what do we do about the "undeserving poor"?

What do we do about those who just keep failing? What do we do about people who have made bad choices, have bad luck, or through complete fault of their own, simply fail?

Prison is too expensive.

Of course I think it's important to ask why kids are hungry. But then you just have to feed them anyway.

Or do we let them go feral and starve on the streets?

Jay Livingston said...

One thing this says is that TVs, microwaves, etc. have gotten cheaper, even if you have to pay more because you pay in installments, as the poor do. Second, poverty for many people is temporary or cyclical, depending on the jobs they have. Get a decent job, you rise above the poverty line (and maybe you can afford to by a decent TV), lose a job, and you’re in poverty. Third, we ought to separate the elderly poor from the younger poor. I’d be especially interested to see how that affects the home ownership rates. How many of those poor homeowners are elderly people who are income-poor but still own their house? Fourth, a microwave and a car are hardly luxuries. People need to get to work, and in many places public transportation is inadequate. And if they work, they don’t have much time to cook. Fifth, I don’t know where Rector got his data on food and nutrition. “Food insecurity” (a euphemism for “hunger”) affected 49 million Americans in 2009. “About a third of these struggling households had what the researchers called “very low food security,” meaning lack of money forced members to skip meals, cut portions or otherwise forgo food at some point in the year.” (NY Times reporting on USDA data).
The poverty line for a family of four was about 22,000. If you work fifty 40-hour weeks at $10/hr (30% higher than minimum wage), you’re still below the poverty line. If that was your income, what kind of car would you have? Would you have cable? A cell and land line? And would you feel that the school lunch program for your kids was an insult to your independence?

Like you and Peter and everyone else, I don’t like to see the government subsidizing poor people who make poor decisions any more than I like to see it subsidizing rich people who made poor decisions (AIG, Citi, Goldman, etc.), but in both cases, I think that the cost of not doing so was greater. Had the government not bailed out the banks and other economic players, many, many deserving people would have suffered. If we cut the school lunch programs we’re not even punishing the underserving poor. We’re punishing their 8-year-old kid and along with them all the kids of the deserving poor (who are probably the large majority).

PCM said...


Just for the record, I *do* like to see my tax dollars subsidize poor people who make poor decisions. (hell, who else really needs government help?)

But let me pretend to be a conservative devil's advocate for a moment.

Remember Clinton's welfare reform? I was a sociology graduate school at the time and remember all the sociologists talking about how it would mark the end of America as we know it. Poverty and starvation and homeless were inevitable. TO think otherwise would be to question the worthiness of the welfare system.

Turned out it worked just fine. And a lot of people got jobs, probably to the betterment of everybody. I don't hear many liberals talk about bringing back the good ol' days of welfare, which incentivized not working.

I just wish we could move away from the concept (that maybe I brought up) of deserving versus undeserving poor. Arguably, nobody is "deserving" of government money. But the goal should not be to weed the "undeserving" from the system. The goal is to help those in need, deserving or not.

Jay Livingston said...


Sociologists were saying not the welfare reform would be the end of America. They were saying that it would be very hard on the poor. The poor did not suffer at the time, but mostly because welfare reform coincided with the 90s boom economy. People got jobs not so much because welfare laws changed but because employers were desperate for workers. They were waiting outside prisons to offer jobs to parolees coming out.

I don’t know what things are like for the poor now that the boom economy is history, nor do I know whether they would have been better or worse off under the old welfare laws. I’m sure that there are sociologists who do know, but I’m not one of them.

PCM said...


That's now how I (perhaps incorrectly) remember it. Your take seems slightly revisionist.

Would you at least agree that most sociologists were against welfare reform (as it was presented) back then?

Need I go back further? Look at the tacit support for the communist system in sociology departments... at least until before the fall of the Wall.

In the N.U. Sociology Department of 1988, I can vouch that there were more communists than Republicans (mind you there weren't too many of either). I think both Parties are equally mistaken, but it's strange how the former seem to have kind of disappeared into the sociological miasma.

PCM said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
PCM said...

But back to giving money to the undeserving poor... this is the kind of thing I'm talking about. Good money spent on bad people! We all win.