The GOP Attack on Free Lunch

The GOP Attack on Free Lunch

In an era of retrenchment in social policy, food assistance is becoming more generous and inclusive. But Republican politicians are attempting to gut one of the most popular programs: free school lunch.

Free lunch distributed at a Seattle school in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic (Karen Ducey/Getty Images)

As the school year draws to a close, so too—under normal circumstances—does access to free or reduced-cost meals for almost 30 million children (about 60 percent of the school-age population). The benefits of the school lunch program are well-documented, and a universal school meal program was an integral part of the policy response to the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. That experience, which lasted from March 2020 to June 2022, inspired a number of states to maintain universal eligibility the following school year. And it encouraged the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to extend food assistance through the summer, via an additional Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefit for families with eligible school-aged children.

So far so good. But food assistance (like almost all our social policies aimed at low-income families) relies on participation by state governments and agencies. While SNAP benefits are paid with federal dollars, states pay half of the administrative costs and have an outsized role in determining or continuing eligibility. When the USDA offered the summer supplement last fall, fifteen states—all led by Republican governors—declined to participate. In defending his decision, Nebraska Governor Jim Pillen stated flatly, “I don’t believe in welfare.” Iowa’s Kim Reynolds bristled at continuing COVID-era food programs “at a time when childhood obesity has become an epidemic.”

Public outcry prompted a few states to reverse course, but as summer arrives, children in Alabama, Alaska, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming—will be left hungry by the capricious localism of the American safety net.

For many state Republicans, the battle over summer food programs was an opportunity for partisan and ideological posturing. But it was also more than that. We yield states discretion in social policy on the thin premise that this will allow them to tailor programs to local needs and local values. Too often, however, local needs are willfully ignored, and local values are fundamentally racist. Instead of tailoring social programs, many states and localities are actively sabotaging them.

This sabotage began in the 1970s, culminating politically in the Reagan years and institutionally with the Clinton administration’s decision to “end welfare as we know it” in 1996. At its root is a carefully manufactured suspicion of undeserving recipients of assistance, and a determination that support should only be earned through work. In its current form, this project is cultivated by a network of conservative think tanks and embraced—at the expense of their own citizens—by Republican statehouses and governors. We saw it in cuts to unemployment programs after the Great Recession, in the decisions to opt out of the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, and in the eager and early retreat from pandemic-era programs and program extensions. And we see it in the politics of food assistance.

Federal food programs have long been a target of conservative ire, most commonly attacked with anecdotes about sirloin and soda in the shopping carts of SNAP recipients. But behind the predictable façade of “fraud and abuse” lies a larger fear: in an era of retrenchment in social policy, food assistance stands out as a program that is getting more generous and more inclusive. The reasons for this are varied. SNAP has always found political cover through its institutionalization in the USDA and access to farm bill funding. With the virtual disappearance of conventional cash assistance, expansions of SNAP benefits have become our most reliable response to economic crisis. SNAP is paid with federal dollars, and benefits are set by the federal program, leaving less room for policy mischief in the states.

The conservative campaign against food assistance takes a few different forms. The Koch-funded Opportunity Solutions Project has pressed efforts in a number of states to strangle SNAP by adopting sweeping new eligibility provisions and dramatically reducing the scope of eligible purchases. A legislative proposal in Iowa last spring would have subjected applicants to a litany of new hurdles (including assessment of asset ownership, bank accounts, licenses, employment, and child support) and effectively restricted food purchases to the short list of items allowed under the state’s WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) program. The bill met stiff opposition from both Iowa’s powerful food lobby (including Tyson Foods) and the USDA, and the version that reached the governor’s desk was pared back to include just the new asset tests and eligibility checks.

By any measure, this is fiscal nonsense. In 2023, Iowa spent a little over $2 million on its share of administering SNAP, a program that drew down over $60 million in federal benefits to state residents. The new eligibility provisions and compliance monitoring are estimated to cost the state more than $17 million in additional administrative costs over the next three years. Such calculations played into Nebraska’s decision to accept the new summer benefit: a state fiscal note estimated it would cost the state just $300,000 to $400,000 to administer a program that promised nearly $20 million in direct benefits.

The costs of monitoring compliance make sense if we understand them as part of a broader conservative project. “Even federally funded programs are causing problems in state budgets,” as an Opportunity Solutions Project workshop for state legislators put it in 2016, “because they can act as a gateway to other welfare programs and create this spillover effect in increased enrollment.” The costs, as workshop attendees were warned, were both fiscal and moral: “Welfare widening is also trapping a generation in poverty and dependence.”

Conservative think tanks are pressing governors and state legislators to treat any glimpse of generosity as a threat to thrift, industry, and self-reliance. This was reflected in the decision by some states to bail early on COVID-era SNAP expansions, and by the post-COVID efforts to undercut SNAP permanently. One particular target is the principle of “broad-based categorical eligibility,” which allows states to expand SNAP eligibility (from the regular threshold of 130 percent of the poverty level up to 200 percent), waive asset tests, and simplify SNAP administration. This is a modest expansion, which simply allows states to use eligibility for other programs (such as cash assistance) as presumptive eligibility for food assistance. For the Opportunity Solutions Project and its ilk, this is cynically miscast as  a “loophole” inviting millionaires to dine on the taxpayers dime.

SNAP’s opponents are also active on the national stage. The farm bill currently under consideration by the House Committee on Agriculture would effectively prevent SNAP benefits from keeping pace with both inflation and changing nutritional guidelines, slashing benefits by $30 billion over the next decade. The Senate may be able to stem the damage this year, but efforts to starve the program—and its recipients—are unlikely to abate.

The trajectory of food assistance captures both the promise and the limits of American social policy. As with other COVID-era initiatives, SNAP expansion (in its reach and generosity) underscored the efficacy of substantive and responsive social spending in alleviating poverty and insecurity. By the same token, the “unwinding” of COVID-era extensions and exceptions across programs—and the impact on poverty, food security, and health coverage—remind us how thin and temporary those commitments are. The SNAP expansions underscored the equity and efficiency of federal benefits and federal guidelines. By the same token, state efforts to undermine SNAP—through programmatic changes or administrative foot-dragging—remind us how fragile and fragmented our social protections are.

Social citizenship in the United States is notoriously inadequate and fragmented; it is as much a source of inequality as it is a solution to it. Rather than offering broad protection, our social policies have narrowed to a scattering of in-kind benefits structured around categorical eligibility and participation in the labor force. In this tattered safety net, food assistance seemed one of the last strong threads. Now it is starting to fray.

Colin Gordon is Professor of History at the University of Iowa and the author, most recently, of Patchwork Apartheid: Private Restriction, Racial Segregation, and Urban Inequality (Russell Sage, 2023).