Vermont’s Legislature applied federal funds to provide lunches to all Vermont school children, regardless of income, during COVID. Federal funds also allowed children to receive universal lunches through summertime. Now the state seeks to make the lunches permanent through the education fund (and thus real estate taxes), at an estimated cost to Vermont taxpayers of $23 million annually.
The wisdom of these proposals has not been challenged: basic tenets of economics and finance have been left out in the cold. These subsidies are regressive, transferring money from low-income taxpayers to provide free food to the very wealthy.
The entire point of a federal nutrition assistance program is that it be targeted to those most in need. This is why SNAP benefits are available only to people below 185% of federal poverty guideline levels. In 2023, a single person qualifies if their income is below $25,141.50; a two-person home must earn less than $33,873.50. Universal school lunches ignore those limitations, and by doing so convert this historically progressive (allocating benefits to the poor) system to a regressive one (allocating money from low-income Americans to the wealthy).
“There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” is a familiar adage. The phrase holds specific economic meaning — that even if the state provides welfare or something else for the people in need, it is in fact bought or provided by other people of the same community through taxes.
Universal school meal proponents ignore economic fundamentals, invoking the alleged stigma associated with receiving public assistance as a reason to provide free food. Universal School Meals Vermont proclaims:
We believe that every student in Vermont should be able to eat breakfast and lunch at school at no cost to their families. Schools are reporting that stigma around the school meal program has been wiped out. … Multiple studies confirm that a universal school meals model is one specific, feasible intervention that greatly improves multiple student, school, and community outcomes.
Simply printing money — which is how the federal government has paid for the “free lunches” during COVID — fuels inflation, which then raises prices of goods and services. This imposes the greatest impact on the poorest of citizens, supposedly the ones being fed freely.
Advocates in Vermont claim their goal is to feed hungry Vermont children. Economist Thomas Sowell warns of “the high costs, counterproductive results, and dangers to the whole fabric of society that the politicizing of such misfortunes has produced repeatedly in countries around the world.”
According to the Vermont Agency of Education, an average of 38 percent of students across all supervisory unions during the school year qualified for free or reduced-price lunch. As a result, some schoolchildren face more challenges than others in succeeding in school and in life. … Research additionally supports the necessity of safe, inclusive, and equitable learning environments to reinforce student success and well-being.
This legislation invokes the 38% of those who qualify for assistance to give money (including EBT cards widely used to buy alcohol, tobacco and drugs) to the 62% who do not. Exploiting the poor to reward the wealthy, the government creates more bureaucratic jobs and wasteful tasks to implement this unsound wealth transfer.
Many Vermonters paying property taxes scrape by with incomes below poverty guidelines. The percentage of them who are impoverished is not mentioned in this legislation: they will be harmed by tax increases nonetheless. This fiscal sleight of hand is accomplished by politicizing food and ignoring fiscal integrity. Faye Mack, the Advocacy and Education Director at Hunger Free Vermont, says:
By funding school meals through our state education fund, Vermont is naming that school meals are a foundational component of the way we educate our kids. That’s a really important distinction and step in recognizing the necessity of having food in order to learn well.
Hunger Free Vermont claims “Food is a right — and we all deserve to have dignified, stable ways to put food on our tables every day, no matter what challenges we are facing.
We all deserve access to nutritious, culturally appropriate food.”
A spokesperson for Gov. Phil Scott rightly states that “lawmakers should prioritize students who need help and says the governor won’t support new taxes to pay for meals for kids from well-off families.”
That common sense is in short supply in Montpelier in 2023.
John Klar is an attorney and farmer residing in Brookfield. © Copyright True North Reports 2023. All rights reserved.