Waste, abuse and skewed priorities

August 11, 1992

"Waste, fraud and abuse" has become such a familiar mantra in the fight to control government spending that it is easy to overlook the skewed priorities that waste more taxpayer dollars than hundreds of so-called welfare queens in Cadillacs. The Department of Agriculture's Summer Food Service Program for Children is a good example.

Since 1968, the federal government has made money available to states for a summer program that targets the same students who receive subsidies for school lunches during the academic year. The summer program has never reached all eligible children, peaking in 1976 with 3.5 million participants. In the late 1970s, the program became the target of criticism for alleged abuses, and more stringent regulations cut participation by more than half. The number has been creeping back up, but participation last summer was only 1.8 million -- or 15 percent of the children who received lunch subsidies during the 1991 school year. Maryland does slightly better than the national PTC average, serving 19.7 percent of eligible children, largely because of a well-organized effort in Baltimore City.

What happens to unserved children during the summer? The evidence suggests that many of them simply go hungry -- as they often do on weekends during the school year. Plenty of elementary school teachers know the heartache of watching students devour their Monday lunches as if they hadn't eaten a meal since lunch the previous Friday. It doesn't take much imagination to know what those conditions can do to classroom performance.

Feeding hungry kids is a cause every American can agree on. Or is it? In their zeal to curb any possible abuse, Congress and the executive branch can share blame for wrapping this well-intentioned program in so much red tape that only a small percentage of eligible children are being served. States aren't entirely guiltless either; with rare exceptions -- Delaware is one -- they haven't shown much initiative in helping local sponsors qualify for funding. Moreover, potential sponsors have not always been as aggressive as they should be in trying to navigate the regulatory morass. But who wouldn't be discouraged by the spectacle of an application -- only an application! -- that can be three to four inches thick.

All this red tape ensures that taxpayers will spend more dollars on such fine points as making sure an ineligible hungry person does not receive so much as a free apple than in training local providers in nutrition or sanitation or in helping make sure the program reaches children who need it. That is a case of skewed priorities -- and a prime example of waste, the callous waste of potential in young American lives.

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