by Peter Franklin
Tuesday, 2
February 2021
Spotted
07:00

Free money or free school meals? There’s another option

Technology may offer a third way
by Peter Franklin
Marcus Rashford was pushing at an open door with his free school meals campaign. Credit: PA

I hate milk. I always have. It turns my stomach. Yet as a child in the 1970s, I was forced to drink a glassful each and every school day. It was some sort of state hand-out — a remnant of post-war policy.

Then, all of a sudden, the lactic New Jerusalem came crashing down. No more free school milk. Finally, I could stop retching.

Not everyone was happy. As education secretary, Maggie Thatcher — the ‘milk snatcher’ — was blamed. That didn’t stop her becoming Prime Minister, of course. And when she did, the watchword was ‘choice’. Ideally, that meant the choice afforded by the rewards of hard work, but where state support was required, the preference was to provide it in cash, not kind.

More recently, the idea of ‘free stuff’ — as championed by populist Left-wingers like Jeremy Corbyn and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — has come back into vogue. Marcus Rashford was pushing at an open door with his free school meals campaign. However, the poor quality of some of the meals provided has prompted people to ask: why we don’t we just give parents the money instead?

That’s a question that Aveek Bhattacharya thinks we should be asking a lot more often. In a thought-provoking paper for the Social Market Foundation, he calls for ‘cash benchmarking’:

..whenever a policy is put forward, it should be accompanied by an explanation of why it is more likely to achieve its objectives than cash transfers of equivalent cost to the government.
- Aveek Bhattacharya, Social Market Foundation

In many cases, it’s perfectly obvious why governments would want to provide a service directly instead of giving people money to buy what they need from the market. For instance, it’s hugely more efficient for the state to build and maintain a road network than to have competing highways provided by the private sector.

But in another cases, like those substitutes for free school meals, there’s a useful debate to be had. As Bhattacharya argues, we must at least consider whether a simple cash transfer would be more efficient and more dignified.

But what about the risk that the cash will be misused by those given it? Whether or not this is a valid concern, it does present a political hurdle to cash-based welfare — and indeed to ideas like Universal Basic Income.

There is, however, a third way: giving people conditional purchasing power. This is the logic behind America’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — a.k.a. Food Stamps. Voucher welfare is resisted in other countries because it’s seen as ‘othering’ the poor. Having to pay for your food with tokens not cash marks you out.

But what if it didn’t? If, or rather when, we switch to electronic cash — the potential will exist for cash credits that can be digitally — and discreetly — earmarked for specific categories of purchase. US Food Stamps are already in the process of going fully digital and thus one can foresee technology enabling a wider revolution in welfare policy.

What is unclear, however, is whether this will be used to give welfare recipients more options — or to impose conditions on the ordinary cash payments currently made to them.

Join the discussion


To join the discussion, get the free daily email and read more articles like this, sign up.

It's simple, quick and free.

Sign me up
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
16 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 year ago

‘a third way’…’going fully digital’..’a wider revolution’….what could possibly go wrong? Oh, and nothing is ‘free’.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
1 year ago

What could be easier than debating how to spend someone else’s money. At the very least, can we dispense with this notion of “free,” as if that’s the case here.

The question I have regarding school lunches, at least in the US and no one can answer it, is does anyone know of a child who ever came off of that program? It is inconceivable in a span of K-12 that a child’s parent(s) never reached the point of being able to either make the child a sack lunch or afford the nominal cost. And this is the pernicious nature of welfare systems. Once someone is sucked in, it is very difficult to get out.

reeterry
reeterry
1 year ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

I’m not in the US but then this article is talking about the UK so your question isn’t really relevant to this debate.
I’m a single working parent, at varying points I have claimed benefits, including free school meals for my son. I’ve worked pretty much his entire life but childcare costs/restrictions have usually meant this had to be pt.
I’ve also worked in schools and so from that perspective as well I can tell you that yes, in the UK, many people ‘come off’ free school meals and other benefits.
In fact we even have a specific code for it, designating children who ‘have been in reciept of free school meals in the past x years’. The need for that code strongly suggests the frequency with which families move out of that bracket.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
1 year ago
Reply to  reeterry

“Shut up,” she explained. Really? Excuse me for noticing parallels between the two countries, starting with the ritual misuse of ‘free’ and working from there. You could have just said “we have a code system you folks might want to try” which would have been a reasonable answer that spoke to the question.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
1 year ago
Reply to  reeterry

I neither agree nor disagree with you – I just don’t know. My children grew up ages ago. However, I have been reading UnHerd for about a month now and all I see is extreme opinions. For me, the point is that I should understand and I suspect that many others would think the same.

I am retired but if I was a tax payer I would want to know, maybe have a say, in how the government is spending the money.

Many people around me, especially a teacher, feel aggrieved about just giving money away. They have a right to an opinion.

Mr Lekas (below) feels put out, perhaps. In my opinion you are wrong to ignore opinions from other countries because they may be relevant.

Anecdotally, a few months ago I was behind a young woman in a queue in Smiths. She had three children clinging onto her and she looked desperately poor – dress, hair, children’s clothes etc. She then asked for £30 worth of scratch cards. I fully realise that the problem with poverty is that you have no future to think about, nothing to look forward to, but my question is, if you gave her £500 would she spend that on scratch cards? How much does she have to have before she stops buying scratch cards?

I can understand where you are coming from but you also should be able to see other points of view as well.

wendajones
wendajones
1 year ago

I’m so thankful that school meals are free here in Sweden. Apart from my children having really good school lunches during their entire schooling (and now my grandchildren) I myself worked in a six form college library for 35 years and saw the quality of school meals rise incredibly. It makes me very happy that this is one thing that I can unreservedly support in this country! And I would gladly pay the taxes necessary for this even if I didn’t have children myself.

Richard Slack
Richard Slack
1 year ago
Reply to  wendajones

and the whole school can eat together?

David J
David J
1 year ago

Milk was free in 1/3 pint bottles, lunches 5 bob (25 p) a week back in the 1960s.
We gulped down milk like there was no tomorrow, and meals were mostly OK for hungry kids, except sago (inedible) and mashed swedes (ugh).
My own children mostly had healthy nosh prepped by their mother or me.

E Wyatt
E Wyatt
1 year ago
Reply to  David J

Free school milk was always off in my schooldays in the 1960s. Awful! I still remember trying to sneakily pour it into the wicker rubbish bin when no one was looking.

jerrywhitcroft
jerrywhitcroft
1 year ago

Anyone who uses the American food stamp program as an example should really do research. It is not a model to be followed ,in part due to moralistic finger wagging by people such as the author.
There are 10 million people in this country who rely on using cash it is not going anywhere soon.

Richard Slack
Richard Slack
1 year ago

I have probably quoted this before but in 1979, when my first child was born child benefit was £5.25 a week. My take home pay as a EO in the Civil Service was about £40 per week, my rent (admittedly not much of a flat) was about £7.00 a week £1.50 got you a decent amount of groceries and a pair of Mothercare children’s slippers were £1.00. Child benefit was, effectively the cost of raising a child. the equivalent today would be about £45.00 per week, it is fact £13.50 apart from the first child

Family support is now in that doomladen world of Universal Credit which can probably best be described as the old-fashioned Poor Law receiving officer converted to a software interface. 1979 was a key year when Mrs Thatcher took office under the belief that financial security was not for the masses. Child benefit was frozen with the intention of killing it, it was replaced as were most other fixed rate benefits, with means tested ones, based on the belief that the poor needed to prove they were deserving. The tax cuts that were applied at the top end of things were never justified by sad fate of the better off, they just wanted the money and got it. While the poor needed the spur of hardship to make them work the rich needed the cushion of wealth to do so.

In the 1950s when almost all benefits were not means tested but universal and governments believed their job was to maintain full employment, for the first time working people had money in their pocket to spend. And spend it they did on all those fridges, washing machines and cars that were coming on the market. This had the effect of stimulating the economy, nothing works better that the “trickle up” theory of economics.

Aditya Chakraborty said recently that we should stop talking about “food poverty” “fuel poverty” “period poverty” and the rest and just talk about simple old-fashioned “poverty”. The main problem with poverty is insecurity, families have no ability to plan or have ambitions, this was reported by poverty campaigners in the Victorian Era and is the same now. Give the poor more money and stopping making them jump through hoops far it. The economy will grow as a result

reeterry
reeterry
1 year ago
Reply to  Richard Slack

Do you claim Universal Benefit yourself? Or is your opinion of it based on other data?
I claim UC and it considerably more flexible and fit for purpose as a system than the old legacy systems.
It is not perfect, by a long stretch but compared to the situation before, for anyone working (which is a large proportion of UC claiments) it is an incredible improvement.

Richard Slack
Richard Slack
1 year ago
Reply to  reeterry

no I don’t. That is not my point. UC as did Tax Credits are means tested based on the idea of compensating poor people for being poor not lifting people out of poverty

D Ward
D Ward
1 year ago

“Free”?

Giulia Khawaja
Giulia Khawaja
1 year ago

You were “forced ” to drink milk? That must have been your school, I opted out of drinking it at junior school and most people had done so in the senior school.
I thought the family allowance was supposed to be spent on the child, a child can be fed well on £30 a week or whatever it is now.

E Wyatt
E Wyatt
1 year ago
Reply to  Giulia Khawaja

It wasn’t a voluntary activity at my school either. Rancid, foul stuff.