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No free lunch


In 1842, Charles Dickens took a tour of the United States, giving lectures to large crowds. Although all the great novels of his maturity lay in the future — he was only 29 at the beginning of the tour — he was already internationally famous.

Dickens wrote up his observations in American Notes. He was horrified by slavery, and particular the brutal violence that was quite openly employed to maintain our peculiar institution.

He was also very critical of the evident obsession with money, and the related cult of the businessman, which by the mid-19th century was already becoming a striking feature of American life. Characteristically, he failed to make any structural connection between southern slavery and the tolerance for it among the northern worshipers of capital accumulation. Dickens’ social criticism always falls back to the level of individual moral choice: if Scrooge would just stop being such a miser, then Bob Cratchit will be able to care for Tiny Tim.

177 years later, this remains the Republican party’s health care plan.

Speaking of Dickensian stories, here is yet another installment in a recurring series:

About 1,000 students in the Wyoming Valley West School district owe money on their student lunch accounts.

District administrators say efforts to collect the money have been frustrating. The school system fired off warning letters to parents that the district could take them to court, with one possible outcome of the children being placed in foster care.

One Wyoming Valley West school administrator tells ABC affiliate WNEP-TV Newswatch 16 the purpose of the letter is to, “put parents on notice that the district intends to collect the lunch money it is owed.”

Not everyone is taking it that way.

Administrators of the Wyoming Valley West School District in Luzerne County say it is unfair to the parents who pay their kids’ lunch money to ignore the debt.

The district sent about 1,000 letters to parents owing money, writing, “You can be sent to dependency court for neglecting your child’s right to food. The result may be your child being taken from your home and placed in foster care.”

People in the Wyoming Valley West School District seem divided.
“Very extreme, maybe unnecessary, maybe cruel and brutal on the government’s part,” said Ruth Bates.

“Nobody should go hungry. It might sound like a stiff penalty, but you should take care of your children,” Steve Spirko said.

Let’s look at some stats: the percentage of children in this school district living in poverty, as determined by the federal government, is 22%. Poor people don’t have money, which might possibly have some causal relationship to their failure to pay for their kids’ school lunch.

Now in theory the federal government is supposed to make sure that poor schoolchildren get fed while at school, but the programs that are designed to ensure this are bureaucratic mazes that many school districts and individual parents find it difficult to run. Also, the Trump administration is now trying to cut back on federal funding for subsidized school meals.

A big difference between our time and Dickens’s world is that our world is almost unimaginably wealthier. Per capita GDP in the US has tripled in the last sixty years, and tripled in the 60 before that, after tripling in the 60 years before that.

In other words, the US is 27 times wealthier per person, approximately, than it was when Dickens was taking his notes. Providing every public school child with a free lunch would be a trivial economic matter, and indeed would probably be cheaper in the long run than trying to determine who should and shouldn’t get free lunches, but that would be socialism, and would also make Ayn Rand and John Calvin cry, so we can’t have that.

Instead, lots of kids in this unimaginably wealthy nation go to school hungry and stay that way while trying to learn something.

What they are certainly learning is that this country doesn’t care enough about them to make sure they get a square meal now and then.

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