Not Theirs to Give: Misguided Compassion at Public Expense

What can seem more appealing than a cafeteria worker giving out free lunches? Or an education official writing-off school loans?

Yet, in both cases, those acting as beneficent philanthropists weren’t paying the cost. The taxpayers were. Public officials should learn that the money is not theirs to give.

Della Curry recently was dismissed as kitchen manager from an elementary school in Aurora, Colorado for, she admitted, “giving food to children that did not have money.” Doing so was legally wrong, she said, but “I do not feel bad about it and would do it again in a heartbeat.”

Although posing as a great humanitarian while denouncing this rich nation for failing to “provide lunch for its children,” she didn’t pay for any children’s lunch. Rather, she gave them a full lunch at public expense.

Indeed, contrary to her claim, the school district was no collective Scrooge. Many children were on official school lunch plans and received free or cheap meals. In fact, a family of four could earn $44,000 annually and still receive a federal subsidy.

Any other student without money received free meals three times. After that, cashless children received a cheese sandwich.

Far bigger bucks are involved in federal Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s giveaway. The for-profit Corinthian College chain has collapsed, leaving some heavily-indebted students in limbo. Students from these schools are thought to carry about $3.6 billion in publicly backed loans.

It’s a tragic situation with multiple offenders:  apparently mismanaged and perhaps fraudulently run educational institutions, predictably expansive and expensive federal education subsidies, and possibly inattentive, careless students. The most obvious victims are the taxpayers. Now Secretary Duncan has promised to forgive loans for potentially tens of thousands of students if they can prove “fraud” by the schools.

Secretary Duncan explained: “You’d have to be made of stone not to feel for these students.” True. Just as one has to sympathize with students without lunch money. But someone also should feel for taxpayers who had no choice in the matter.

Surely the first responsibility of any student is to investigate the school he or she is considering attending. Making a bad choice is no reason for relieving someone of responsibility for an obligation they voluntarily assumed—especially at someone else’s expense.

Unfortunately, Duncan said the department intended to create a process that would apply far beyond Corinthian College students. Forty million Americans owe a total of $1.2 trillion in student loans. Imagine how many might believe that they deserve a debt write-off.

There was a time when Americans would not have expected government to provide free lunches or subsidized university educations. Even elected officials once stood against public giveaways.

Rep. Davy Crockett famously opposed an appropriation for the widow of a naval officer. He explained that “we must not permit our respect for the dead or our sympathy for a part of the living to lead us into an act of injustice to the balance of the living.”

Decades later, President Grover Cleveland blocked a drought relief bill: “I do not believe that the power and duty of the General Government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering, which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit.”

Imagine a president today taking such an action and making such a statement.

As I point out in the Freeman: “Years ago compassion meant to ‘suffer with.’ It eventually morphed into writing a check. Today politicians claim to be compassionate when they make other people write checks.”

But whatever the perceived need, the public’s money should not be government’s to give. Politicians are doing wrong.

Alas, the bigger problem is that many of their constituents want them to do wrong. Until people understand that Uncle Sam should not be an all-season Santa Claus, public officials will continue to act like Delia Curry and Arne Duncan.