"Mitch McConnell never needed free lunch": Solving childhood hunger shouldn't be a partisan issue

Why have an expanded Child Tax Credit and universal free school meals both been stymied by Republicans in Congress?

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published October 6, 2022 1:59PM (EDT)

Hungry girl looks for food in empty fridge at home (Getty Images/Rafael Ben-Ari)
Hungry girl looks for food in empty fridge at home (Getty Images/Rafael Ben-Ari)

Last week, for the first time in over half a century, the White House held the Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health, meant to catalyze action for the millions of Americans struggling with food insecurity, as well as mitigate diet-related diseases such as diabetes and hypertension.

However, the problem of widespread childhood hunger and limited access to fresh food — especially amid pandemic-driven shortages and inflation — was top of mind for everyone in the room, President Joe Biden included. 

"In America, no child should go to bed hungry," Biden said. "If you look at your child and you can't feed your child, what the hell else matters?" 

More than 9 million U.S. children (or 1 in 8 kids) faced hunger in 2021, according to Feeding America. Black and Latinx children are more likely to face hunger than white children, while single-parent families are more likely to be food insecure. (In 2021, 24% of households headed by single moms were food insecure.) Food security is defined by the U.N. Committee on World Food Security as meaning that "people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their food preferences and dietary needs for an active and healthy life." 

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has forecasted that grocery prices will rise an average of 11% this year, which would mark the largest year-on-year increase since 1974. That year, prices soared by 14.9%.

And while the White House conference teased some big, innovative ideas — specifically in the realm of corporate partnerships, such as Google updating its search experience to make it easier for individuals using SNAP to connect with benefits — it became clear that two of the most salient paths to curb food insecurity for American kids had already been successfully implemented in recent years. Why, then, were they stymied by Republicans in Congress?

The first was the American Rescue Plan, which included the expanded Child Tax Credit, a fully refundable tax credit for parents with children who qualify. In 2021, the credit increased from $2,000 per child to $3,600 per qualifying child under the age of six. Similarly, for each qualifying child from the ages of six to 16, the credit increased from $2,000 to $3,000. 

Under the American Rescue Plan, the Internal Revenue Service disbursed half of the 2021 Child Tax Credit in monthly payments during the second half of 2021.

"If you look at your child and you can't feed your child, what the hell else matters?"

"Soon after I came to office, I signed what was called the American Rescue Plan into law," Biden said. "It helped put food on the table and keep a roof over the heads of millions of American families . . . Overwhelmingly, working families used the Child Tax Credit to buy food and other basic needs for their families." 

However, Congress failed to renew the credit in December 2021, which had immediate implications for vulnerable populations. Columbia University's Center on Poverty and Social Policy estimated that 3.7 million more children were living in poverty by January — a 41% increase from the previous month, when families received their last check. 

A March NPR report illuminated that data by surveying families across the country who had benefited from the credit, many of whom cited purchasing food for their children as a source of worry.

"It helped shore us up in the middle of the month when we'd be running out of food money and trying to pay bills and worrying about the kids," an individual named Grace told the outlet. "It uplifted us and gave us hope because we knew that money was coming into our bank account. And without the Child Tax Credit, the struggle continues as usual." 

Sarah Anderson of North Carolina added: "[T]o lose that money, especially where the price of everything has skyrocketed — go to the grocery store, and groceries seem like they're way more, almost double what they were, you know, even last year. I just feel really abandoned by this country, honestly, and by our Congress going to bed at night, just wondering how are we going to pay all of these bills this month. And I just don't want my kids to feel that stress or to worry about it." 

When compared to the implementation and retention of social programs like Obamacare, it's perhaps a little surprising that Congress let the Child Tax Credit expire. As Dylan Matthews wrote for Vox, political scientists, including Berkeley's Paul Pierson, argue that "beneficiaries became invested in these programs and would revolt against any politicians who threatened them."

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"That's basically what happened in 2017," Matthews added. "Republicans should have had the votes to repeal Obamacare after Trump took the White House, but the prospect of throwing millions of people off Medicaid started to look so politically poisonous that several GOP senators bolted and killed the effort." 

He continued, "I thought this would happen in 2021: letting the child tax credit expire would so enrage parents benefiting that Congress would be forced to extend it. That wasn't so." 

There's a number of reasons as to why that didn't transpire. Many Americans may have viewed the credits as temporary aid, akin to the three rounds of stimulus checks. Many of those same Americans likely lacked the resources or time to organize, especially amid a pandemic. 

Matthews offered another view: "Maybe it's a matter of status quo bias: the credit was set to expire, and it's always easier for Congress to do nothing than to pass new legislation to extend a program." 

That said, passiveness alone didn't lead the credit to expire. As parents received their first checks in 2021, Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., told the Huffington Post in 2021 that "every Democrat voted for this tax credit and every Republican voted no."  

"Every Democrat voted for this tax credit and every Republican voted no."

Similarly, this year also saw the expiration of universal free school meals — another pandemic-driven program that helped reduce the incidence of childhood hunger. As the USDA reported, the percentage of food-insecure households with children decreased by 2.3% between 2020 and 2021, after universal school meals were implemented.

And as Salon Food reported in June, the program allowed all students, regardless of economic status, to receive free school lunches. 

At the time, Linda — a mother from Kentucky who asked to use a pseudonym for privacy — told Salon that the program was a life-saver. As she balanced work and an internship while attempting to shift professional fields, Linda and her family couldn't afford the cost of lunch for multiple children on a daily basis. She stated that universal school meals "leveled the playing field" for children who were experiencing food insecurity. 

"It seems like such a small and insignificant thing — $2.50 a day per kid — but there will be kids who will be teased for being on free lunch," Linda then said. "Or kids whose parents are too proud to apply for benefits, or kids whose parents make $25 too much a month to qualify. I have also been in this category before for food stamps. With the cost of everything going up, it seems like this is a really bad time to pull the rug out from under folks." 

However, Republican lawmakers opted not to renew the universal program as part of a spending package passed in March to keep the government open. Referencing fiscal responsibility, some, like Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., have claimed the program was never intended to be permanent.

"Congress never intended to provide universal free breakfast and lunches to all K-12 students regardless of need," Foxx said during a floor speech debating waiver extensions in June. "By returning these programs back to normal, we can return our responsibility to taxpayers and the principle that aid should be targeted and temporary."

According to an article published by Salon in March, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was seemingly on "a mission to end expanded free school lunches." Politico had reported that the senator was "forcefully opposing a provision in the omnibus spending bill that would extend a slew of waivers that have allowed schools to serve universal free meals during the pandemic."

While McConnell never publicly commented on the issue, an aide for Republican leadership defended ending USDA's broad pandemic waiver authority as an attempt to clamp down on government spending and get schools back to normal amid waning COVID-19 cases and expanded access to vaccines and other treatments.  

The ultimate dissolution of the program drew strong responses from Democrats. Nina Turner, the former Ohio state senator who served as co-chair of Bernie Sanders' 2020 presidential campaign, called McConnell's efforts to block a waiver extension "evil." 

"Mitch McConnell never needed free lunch to get a hot meal at school. He never needed food stamps to survive," Charles Booker, the Democratic U.S. Senate candidate in Kentucky, wrote in response to the GOP leader's move. "Nearly half of Kentucky's children live in households below 200% of the federal poverty line. I was one of them. He doesn't see us."

Outside of Washington, individual states have stepped in to make universal free school meals permanent. According to the National Conference of State Legislations, 20 states have considered or passed legislation to establish universal free school meals. California, Colorado, Maine and Vermont (all of which are states Biden won in 2020) were the first to implement such programs. Following the expiration of national meal waivers, these states will now pay for all student meals, regardless of income. 

"It sounds silly for a person to hear that who doesn't have a child, but full school programs — food programs do a lot," Biden said last week. "During the summer months, things change. Within the next 10 years, my plan, as was already referenced, would make at least 9 million more children eligible for free school meals — a major first step for free meals for every single student." 

Bringing back the expanded Child Tax Credit and universal free school meals, Biden said during the White House Conference, is worth it. And you can follow the data.

"Look, folks, people are constantly looking at federal programs to see which ones are working and which ones are ineffective," he said. "Well, during the pandemic, we had a real-world example right in front of us." 

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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Analysis Child Tax Credit Congress Food Insecurity Hunger Mitch Mcconnell Politics Republicans School Lunches