Why Free School Meal Should be Provided Even to Rich Students

By 2021, every student living in Seoul, South Korea will become recipients of free school meal during their compulsory education period. This radical expansion of coverage is attributed to the landslide victory of progressive superintendents of education in the 2018 election. Having gained momentum from the election, this political movement towards universal free school meal is projected to be irreversible in Korea.

Nonetheless, the narrow margin of victory shows that the conservatives’ campaign denouncing free school meal for all has strongly resonated with many. The campaign’s core message was that the progressive’s assurance of universal free school meal is irrational populism, which wastes tax money on feeding rich students whose parents can clearly afford school meal. The conservative knew so well that the imagery of rich students receiving free meal alongside the poor is intuitively repugnant. As opposed to this, they emphasized the efficient use of resources by providing free meal only to the poor students meticulously selected by means testing. They argued that a conditional provision based on students’ eligibility is the right way to aid the disadvantaged.

Much as I understand the prevalent reluctance to the universal aspect of the progressive’s free school meal plan, I dedicate this essay to explaining why I still support the idea of making school meal free for all regardless of their households’ income rather than singling out a group of disadvantaged through a means test. I begin by laying out some common objections to means testing for free school meal. Afterwards, I argue that they are insufficient in fully exposing the moral defect of means testing for the benefit. Eventually, I offer my account of the fundamental problem of means testing for free school meal, drawing on theoretical framework by an eminent egalitarian philosopher, Elizabeth S. Anderson.

Conventional criticisms of a free school meal plan contingent upon eligibility test revolve around the concerns over the impact of social stigma on the disadvantaged. Let’s imagine what a class would look like during lunchtime in the UK where recipients of free school meal are selected by a means test. In the UK, disadvantaged pupils between the age of 5 and 16 are determined by its eligibility test (Department of Education, 2018, p. 3). Students whose households have an annual net earned income of no more than £7,400 are entitled to free school meal (Department of Education, 2018, p. 5). This eligibility test divides a class into 2 groups: the well-off whose parents can afford school meal and the remaining poor who are eligible for free school meal. This differential treatment of the students would entail a daily display of the difference between the rich and poor, attaching the stigma of poverty to the recipients.

Another criticism points out a perverse economic effect of means testing on a particular household group which is subsumed under the category of the rich ineligible for the benefit: households whose net earned income is slightly above the threshold but not enough that the cost of school meal is still financially burdensome. Under the new UK plan, a family with one child has to earn extra £1,000 a year once they are ineligible for the benefit by passing the £7,400 mark (Royston, 2018). Since an annual pay raise of £1,000 is improbable in the short run, the estimation means that ineligible households must bear an annual spending reduction of £1,000—to put this figure into perspective, the lower range of monthly rent in Edinburgh is £425 (“Estimated living costs 2018-19,” 2018). However, means testing disregards the various circumstances of ineligible households for free school meal and discriminates against them based on states’ conception of an appropriate income level to determine their need for the benefit.

The objections above are fairly valid; however, they fail to address the fundamental moral defect of means testing for free school meal, engendering even more misleading counterarguments. Suppose there’s an eligibility test that perfectly ensures the confidentiality of information about free school meal recipients. Suppose the government discovers a net earned income threshold that accurately reflects households’ true need for the benefit and provides it accordingly. Had the two suppositions been true, the problems of means testing mentioned earlier would be resolved. Therefore, should our aim be to create an eligibility test sophisticated enough to redress potential problems it entails, allocating resources only to the most-needy?

Even if a flawless means test were devised, I would still argue that free school meal must be provided to all students unconditionally during their compulsory education period. It is the fundamental rationale behind means testing for free school meal that I find problematic, so any attempts to reform the test is of no use. The rationale of free school meal plan isn’t that the state is generous enough to compensate for the disadvantaged out of pity. Instead, it’s the state’s expression of respect for all parents who are equally morally valuable by fulfilling their parental responsibility of sending their kids to school. The Education (School) Act 1996 in Section 7 states UK parent’s responsibility to ensure that their child receives “full-time education suitable (a) to his age, ability and aptitude, and (b) to any special educational needs…” Hence, all law-abiding parents sending kids to school are entitled to be free from the concerns over the cost of school meal and to be equally respected by the state for their fulfillment of parental duty. While means testing for free school meal might be an attempt to equalize parent’s capability to send kids to school by subsidizing the disadvantaged, it fails to treat low and high-income parents as equals by requiring the former to submit evidence of their financially inferior status to receive aid. For instance, the UK model of means testing requires recipient parents to be periodically checked for monthly net earned income not exceeding the threshold (Department of Education, 2018, p. 6). This scrutinizing process makes free school meal be something that parents should earn from the state. However, nobody deserves to live under continuous surveillance checking eligibility for the benefit that one is entitled to. Therefore, means testing is in essence a blatant disrespect for needy parents who are law-abiding citizens fulfilling their parental responsibility.

For a better understanding, let us think about the case of the conscript. In states where national service is a civic duty, the entire set of army supplies is provided to all for free regardless of their family background. In this case, why aren’t we disputing about the universal provision of army supplies when there are clearly conscripted sons and daughters of wealthy parents? Are we squandering our tax money by subsidizing rich soldiers during their mandatory national service period? The answer would be no for many because the rationale behind this is to have equal respect for the conscript as law-abiding citizens of equal moral worth, thereby providing necessary conditions every soldier is entitled to.

The justification for a universal provision of certain goods during mandatory education or national service period can be explained by Anderson’s view on equal citizenship as the ultimate goal for egalitarianism. Anderson (1999, p. 289) describes her theory of pursuing equal citizenship as “democratic equality,” which seeks distribution of goods that upholds principles expressing equal respect for all law-abiding citizens. Her interest lies more in the rationale of the distribution than in the distributive share one ends up with. Goods shouldn’t be distributed based on pity towards one’s inferiority because pity is incompatible with a sense of respect for one’s dignity (Anderson, 1999, p. 306).

Applying Anderson’s view, I argue that any kind of means testing for the distribution of benefit aimed to facilitate law-abiding citizens’ fulfillment of civic duty or responsibility is morally unacceptable. Citizens are fully entitled to the rights and privileges ensured by their citizenship which is conferred only if they accept the civic duties that follow. In response to their fulfillment of civic duties, the state is obliged to express equal respect for all by treating them as equals. When the state supports their fulfillment of parental responsibility or mandatory national service, every law-abiding citizen should equally benefit from the support regardless of their different circumstances. However, means-tested distribution based on one’s income level is based on pity towards the disadvantaged which defeats the purpose of ensuring equal citizenship amongst law-abiding citizens.

To conclude, in the realm of performing civic duty or responsibility, every law-abiding citizen is equally entitled to the state-subsidized goods that are pertinent to their capabilities of completing it. However, to my mind, the moral basis of any kind of eligibility test determining the distribution of goods is contemptuous pity for the disadvantaged rather than equal respect for all law-abiding citizen. Thus, I support a universal provision of free school meal to students during their compulsory education period, which ensures equal citizenship amongst both students and their parents.


Header image taken from: naver.com


Anderson, Elizabeth S.  (1999).  What Is the Point of Equality? Ethics, 109(2), 287–337. https://doi.org/10.1086/233897

Department of Education. (2018, April). Free School meals Guidance for local authorities, maintained schools, academies and free schools.

Education (School) Acts 1997. s. 7. Retrieved from https://www.legislation.gov.u/ukpga/1997/59/section/7

Estimated living costs 2018-19. (2018, March 12). The University of Edinburgh. Retrieved from https://www.ed.ac.uk/studying/international/finance/cost-of-living

Royston, Sam. (2018, March 13) One million children could go hungry under new plans for free school meals. The Guardians. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/voluntary-sector-network/2018/mar/13/one-million-children-hungry-new-plans-free-school-meals

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At Yale-NUS College, we are thinking about ideals of equality and democracy, and how they relate to practice, in Singapore and in the wider world.

This website showcases our reflections.

Articles were originally submitted as course papers for Professor Sandra Field’s classes Contemporary Egalitarianism and Democratic Theory.

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