In a city of people obsessed with economic inequality, I’m having trouble understanding the City Council’s latest proposal to provide free lunches to more than 45,000 public school children whose parents currently pay $1.75 a day for their kids to eat lunch. The plan, which ostensibly is designed to protect poor kids from being stigmatized by other students for receiving a free lunch, will actually result in a $14 million dollar subsidy to families at the top end of the New York City income bracket and cost the city an extra $10 million on top of that due to increased demand.
The unwelcome big ticket proposal seems to have gained steam during a March Council hearing in which some students reported that they would rather go hungry than be the object of lunch line ridicule. Advocates of the free lunch policy, including Public Advocate Letitia James, have said that 250,000 kids are currently eligible for free lunches but choose not to partake. I’m skeptical that more than a small fraction of that quarter million kids are not eating due to the stigma of poverty.
More likely, they are bringing their own lunches because of the poor quality of cafeteria offerings, personal health or religious reasons, or because they are going home to eat lunch, or they are eating in nearby restaurants and other small businesses located close to their schools. One piece of evidence to support this claim is that 81 percent of eligible elementary students partake in the free lunch program, while only 38 percent of eligible high school students do. It’s possible that the older students are more aware of social class optics, but it’s more likely that they’re exercising their privilege of choice.