Georgia Representative Jack Kingston came under fire last week for suggesting that schoolchildren who receive free lunches “pay a dime, pay a nickel . . . or maybe sweep the floor of the cafeteria,” an effort he suggested would help get “the myth out of their head that there is such a thing as a free lunch.” The proposal has immediately drawn comparisons to Newt Gingrich’s suggestion in 2011 that poor schools fire union janitors and instead hire needy kids who want to earn an extra buck.
The uproar has been swift and emotional, with critics claiming that Kingston, like Gingrich before him, is a mean old bully, exacerbating the already awful lives of poor kids.
“Have you ever seen what children are like?” wrote Jim Newell at Salon. “God, they’re awful. The well-off ones would dump their whole lunch trays on the floor and say to the poor kid, ‘Hey, Rags, clean ’er up, because ha ha ha, your parents have a low income.’ Not only would you be scarring poor kids for life; you’d also give a whole new generation of non-poor kids ample practice time to develop into [a**holes].” Josh Israel at ThinkProgress complained that Kingston’s proposal would incite truly needy children to turn down the lunch being offered to them, for fear of being singled out. And The Root’s Keli Goff wrote that Kingston should do “something substantive to help these children break the cycle of poverty so they don’t have to listen to you threatening to use their kids for slave labor a generation from now.”
But the real problem with Kingston’s proposal is that it doesn’t go far enough. Children — regardless of whether or not they receive a free or reduced lunch — would benefit from chipping in with school cleaning. Moreover, society would benefit.
I know that from my own experience. I spent most of my elementary years at Noah Webster Christian School in Cheyenne, Wyo. A tiny school, it operated out of churches on a shoestring budget. Dads chipped in one summer and built a playground for us. The education was excellent, but a janitorial staff was far beyond reach, so we children were expected to pitch in.
In true Mary Poppins spirit, teachers often made a game of it: Shaving cream removes ink smudges from desks mid-semester, and for some reason, it’s much more fun to speed-scribble multiplication tables in the mousse-y mess than it is to write them in a notebook. But fun wasn’t guaranteed, and chores came as regularly as homework. On Fridays, children vacuumed and wiped down the chalkboards. And on one of the last days of each semester, we spent the day deep-cleaning — trotting around with plastic buckets, scrubbing floor trim and washing the white-brick walls of the hallway.
As much as I complained at the time, that responsibility taught us to value public property. It also gave us a stake in our school. We worked hard to keep it clean and functioning, and that taught us to appreciate the resources we had. The experience also gave us practical competencies far beyond what home-ec classes offer. Finally, it was strangely empowering: We were trusted to mix Pine-Sol with water (albeit with supervision), and our teachers understood that just because we weren’t yet twelve didn’t mean we were idiots incapable of climbing a ladder to dust without falling to our untimely demise.
The values of class-chore time were lost on me, of course — until I transferred to public school in fifth grade. Children made messes with reckless abandon. It didn’t matter if you left a trail of crumbs behind you in the cafeteria or if you tracked in mud from recess; you wouldn’t be the one cleaning it up. In contrast, in third grade at Noah, I once spent a recess scrubbing out my desk after I’d forgotten an apple in it over break. It had molded and liquefied, and it smelled terrible. It was my fault, and because it was my problem to deal with, I was more responsible in the future.
But that ethic runs contrary to the progressive mindset, which infantilizes adults — and children, much more so. The Root’s Goff continued her critique of Kingston’s proposal by suggesting more handouts for poor kids, including “comprehensive sexual education, low-cost contraception and loan-free financial college aid so these kids can have a real chance to compete.” And then she let slip the underlying theory:
The words “personal responsibility” should almost always be limited to adults, and to those teens nearing adulthood who have the capacity to make informed decisions, good and bad, and to be held accountable for them accordingly.
That’s a radical perspective. Education has, historically, been a moral endeavor as much as a practical one. Not only does it equip our young to someday gainfully provide for themselves and their families; it also prepares children to gradually assume responsibility. Good education leads to self-government, and the education that separates learning from responsibility does children no favors. So by all means, pass the mop to all children, rich or poor.
— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.