Wednesday 3 September 2014

In Defence of Free School Meals

The Conservative/LibDem Coalition has proven itself the most incompetent and vicious government this country has seen since the 1930s. In future decades historians of politics will damn it for the food bank queues, the severely disabled people being forced into work, for allowing the super rich to coin it while hammering the worst off and, of course, failing utterly to rebuild an economy that can hold its own in the cut and thrust of global capital flows. But among the foot notes, two positives will get highlighted. One will be the piloting of equal marriage through the Commons, at significant cost to the Tory party, and the other will be this: the introduction of universal free school meals for five to seven-year-olds across England and Wales.

Seeing lefty Graun writer Zoe Williams attack the policy from the right was not expected. Her complaint is that introducing a universal benefit jars with the food emergency semi-deliberately created by the government's butchering of social security and promotion of poorly-paid, insecure work. If they wanted to tackle the problem, making sure nice middle class people pocket a chunk of taxpayers' cash might be a start. As she puts it, "to drop over £1bn on a universal benefit that excludes by child’s age rather than parent’s means is just preposterous." She goes on:
And yet I’m coming to realise the sad undertow of this story, which is that things have become so bad I wouldn’t make a defence for any universal benefit at the moment. The solidarity argument of universalism used to be heartwarming. But now all it does is emphasise the erosion of security at the bottom, the erosion of the social promise that nobody has to starve and everybody deserves a roof over their head – and how fast and brutal it has been.
Two things. This will keep £800 in the pockets of parents every year for three years. It is real, practical help for the majority of people affected by it. If Zoe doesn't want her 800 nicker, I'd recommend donating it to the Labour Party or a trade union. The labour movement is the only one serious enough and in a position to tackle the obscenity of food poverty. I recommend all her guilty-feeling friends do the same: your eight hundred pounds will help Labour win next year.

The immediate advantage of rolling it out as a universal benefit means no laborious application process or means-testing. Having previously worked with people on low pay and/or subsisting on social security, endless form-filling and monitoring by a welfare bureaucrat is something a surprising number shy away from. There is pride too. I come from a working class family that was always eligible for free school dinners. Did my mum put in a claim? No. I can remember asking why some kids got free meals and we didn't. "It's because they're poor", came the reply. Making it universal removes any stigma straight away and ensures every child in want of decent, nutritious food gets one cooked meal every week day. If the price is some rich folk getting to save cash too, I can live with that.

Also, universalism isn't about "feeling nice", it's about cohesion. Or more than that, it's about ensuring those who don't need it still get a buy-in. I don't have kids, but receive a good wage. If I did and a £800 saving came my way, I'd be more inclined to want that policy to continue, and perhaps extended for the course of my daughter/son's school life. Self-interested, yes. Selfish? Probably. But when well-off, well-connected and influential people are habituated to the saving and defend it for entirely selfish reasons, they ensure those without their social capital and advantage continue to receive the benefit too. No form-filling. No stigma.

The policy is a transparent election bribe, but it doesn't matter. What does are the kids from similar backgrounds to mine, and that's why every socialist, every Labour person, and anyone with a decent bone in their body should welcome its introduction.


Farah Mendlesohn said...

Spot on.

I've just had a conversation with a colleague whose husband refuses to join a union although he needs their help, won't get NHS hearing aids but insists on going private, and won't accept the workplace disability support because he doesn't want to be a charity case.

Pride can be seriously misplaced.

Gary Elsby said...

Them rotten Tories doling out free school meals to the 'needy'.

Remember the good old days when Labour didn't do this?

Take a look at the Health and social Care document published today by Kate Barker, Britain's top economist (from Stoke-on-Trent).

I wrote it in 2010 and mine is better (I'm from Stoke-on-Trent).

Coincidence my arse.

woodscolt said...

Distaste for universalism also buys in to the austerity narative that there isn't enough money to do things like provide school meals - there was a lot of handwringing when the government got rid of child benefit for top-rate tax payers, too. It's clearly as cheap and efficient for the government to give all parents an allowance, or all children a free school meal and then tax it back from those earners who do not need such a benefit
through an already existing revenue system

than to put the onus on individuals to jump through bureaucratic hoops for a means-tested benefit. I mean you're going to have to tax their incomes anyway.

Chris said...

I can see benefits of this but...

According to the government there isn't enough money to sustain public services which is why councils have and are facing massive cuts and why benefits have been attacked. So this is the little sticking plaster over the gun shot wound!

I think the government should be challenged to explain how this is being paid for, it may be that vital services for the most vulnerable have paid for this. I also suspect this policy is an election bribe.

But the austerity principle is this: attack those who are weak and on the margins, i.e. those that won't lose you too many votes.

This single policy should not hide the fact that the Tories and Liberals have driven the very poorest to the edge of the abyss. And that this policy to extend free school meals is one being paid for by the poor.

That usually signifies a regressive policy when related to tax. I am not entirely sold on the universalism argument.