No such thing as a free lunch

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No such thing as a free lunch

South Gyeongsang Gov. Hong Joon-pyo declared that his municipal government will no longer provide its local education office with funding for free school meals next year. The decision has refueled the debate over the universal free school lunch program, which is now considered part of the state’s compulsory education system. Some are suggesting that the program should be readjusted to a selective system that benefits children of low-income families amid concerns over the worsening fiscal woes of local governments and district education offices.

South Gyeongsang announced it will cease funding school lunches of district education offices next year. A populist welfare contest among candidates during the gubernatorial, mayoral and education superintendent elections in 2010 and the general and presidential elections in 2012 has backfired because of a fiscal breakdown.

Politicians’ reckless campaign promises to win votes during the election season has brought about the catastrophe. The four-year program is in jeopardy, with the central and local governments and municipal education offices tossing around funding and clashing over financing due to a shortage of public money. The program is on the brink of a collapse because politicians did not create a sustainable budget.

Of the 6.436 million students attending elementary, middle and high schools across the nation, 68.1 percent, or 4.45 million, have eaten school lunches for free so far this year. The district education offices shouldered 1.57 trillion won ($1.4 billion), or 59 percent, and local governments paid the rest - 1.9 trillion won, or 41 percent.

Most municipal governments are being squeezed financially due to school lunch subsidies. Of the 244 administrative governments across the nation, 78 cities, counties and districts, or 32 percent, cannot even afford to pay their staff. Under such low self-sufficiency, it is more realistic to re-examine the education policy.

Welfare policies, including free-for-all school meals, should be judged based on fiscal integrity and affordability, not on a simple choice between a universal and selective system. If the economy improves on a local and national level, a selective welfare program could be widened. But the program is currently a luxury we cannot afford.

Concerns over the rush of new welfare programs - free school meals, free day care programs, free school uniforms and cuts in university tuition fees, which started from the local elections in 2010, have become a reality. Time calls for rational economic thinking. We have learned that there is no such thing as a free lunch and that wider welfare benefits without a tax hike is wishful thinking.

The facts back up this argument. First, since school lunches were provided for free to all students, food waste at schools has surged. The cost has amounted to 38.8 billion won over the last four years. This suggests that after lunches became free, students began dumping their lunch trays into the trash because the food quality has worsened. Second, public opinion has changed over the years. A poll by Gallup Korea from Nov. 11 to 13 showed that 66 percent of 1,002 adults across the nation supported the idea that school lunches should be provided selectively, leaving children from top-income families out. About 31 percent said free school lunches should be sustained regardless of income levels.

A hasty decision to throw out the free school program could be wrong. But just because reversal is difficult doesn’t mean we should continue with a program that the state and local governments cannot afford. The system should be re-examined after recording the opinions of the people. The sooner the better.

If school meals are provided under a selective system, they should be widened to students of low-income families so that they could study and pursue dreams without any economic worries. They should be able to enjoy their meals and finish school not as special treatment but as due rights given to a future generation.

The continuity of the free school meal program will worsen the state’s public finances and pose an enormous burden on future generations. Universal welfare is sweet to the ears, but bitter or even disastrous in the longer run as it can wreck havoc on public finances and overall policy.

Local governments and the state could sink into a debt pit and one day might have to declare a default. Some could ask what is such a big deal about providing one meal to our children. But that one meal a day could amount to a very costly price some day. Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

*The author is a professor at Kongju National University.

by Park Eun-jong

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