“FACTCHECK – How Accurate Is the Claim, ‘Governor Mike Pence and the Indiana GOP are cutting back on free school lunches so they can give money to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’?” written by Corey McLaughlin for Common Culture, and published on 05/30/13.
Image Courtesy of: Stop the World the Teabaggers Want Off.
Have you seen this claim floating around Facebook yet? Have you wondered – like me – just how true the assertion actually is? If so, then please allow me to share my findings with you, and we can compare notes.
The meme I am fact-checking was posted on the Facebook page ‘Stop the World the Teabaggers Want Off.’ Similar claims have been made by numerous other sources, however.
What’s going on?
First, let us establish the facts.
On April 27, Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed the state’s budget bill, which contained a provision to alter the method Indiana uses to tally low-income students in public schools; the figure is used to determine levels of poverty-based funding for school districts.
Rather than base their totals on the number of students enrolled in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) as in previous years, the legislature opted instead to tie the figure to the state’s textbook assistance program.
Critics allege this alteration will reduce the enrollment of eligible students who would receive benefits from the program, depriving them of nutrition during the school day.
Twelve days after the budget bill was passed, Governor Pence then approved legislation to provide a $100 million state loan to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in order to finance improvements to the venue.
After signing the statute, Pence indicated that the Speedway loan is an investment that “will further economic development in the motorsports industry while also protecting the interests of Hoosier taxpayers.”
Critics argue that the Speedway loan is akin to a preemptive – and a taxpayer-subsidized – bailout package, but in this instance the facts are abundantly clear.
The change in school-lunch standards, on the other hand, is a tad more involved.
Why are they switching standards?
The GOP felt it necessary to make this alteration in the school-lunch program as they suspect rampant fraud and abuse – which is not dissimilar to their fascination with alleged voter fraud, one might add. In the years since 2008’s Great Recession struck, the school-lunch program has seen a dramatic increase in student enrollment nationally; this rise was mirrored in the Midwest as well – including the Hoosier state.
Before the recession in 2005, about 29 percent of public school children in Indiana were receiving free lunches through the NSLP. By 2011, it was up to 40 percent. If you include those students receiving reduced-rate lunches, the total rises to 49%.
Forty-nine percent of Hoosier kids in public schools are enrolled in the NSLP – a federal program intended as a “national security” measure which would provide impoverished children with the nutrition needed to give them an equal shot at success, and in so doing, to improve upon the nation’s prospects as our future unfolds.
This upsurge in NSLP enrollment seems suspicious to the Indiana GOP, who point out that the rate of enrollment in the NSLP more than doubles the number of poverty-stricken children in the state by some estimates. Furthermore, they are concerned that the program presently invites abuse due to its perceived lack of oversight.
Why does this change up matter?
The switch from the NSLP methodology over to the textbook standard is significant because it gives the state more control to audit applicants and to scrutinize their eligibility, thus giving them more power to regulate the amounts of poverty-based funding that are granted to school districts in the state.
The NSLP is a federal program, and thus superior in authority to state government; states have no control over the process. By switching Indiana’s standard measure for impoverished students in public schools from enrollment in a federal program to participation in a state-level program, the legislature has now asserted control over a portion of the process. This switch in methods amounts to a minor power grab of sorts – but completely within their legal rights as far as I can tell.
During the 2011-12 school year, 5 billion meals were served nationally to 31 million students; because of the NSLP, 59% of those meals were free of charge, 9% were reduced in rate; 33% were paid in full by the student’s families.
During that same school year in Indiana, 40% of public school students were receiving free lunches, 9% were reduced in rate, and 51% were paid in full by the student’s families. The state’s rates of participation in the program are significantly lower than the national figures – and yet the Indiana GOP passed the legislation by arguing that many thousands of Hoosiers are probably guilty of fraud.
By the numbers: the NSLP
According to the Indiana Youth Institute, general poverty rates are estimated at 17% of the population, while the child poverty rate hovers at 23%. In 2012, Indiana had 1,041,602 students in public schools overall. Calculating to determine the number of public school students living in poverty, we see that twenty-three percent of 1,041,602 is 239,568 students; 239,568 public school students in Indiana live below the poverty line.
To be fair, proponents of the change in methods calculate child poverty rates differently than the Indiana Youth Institute, arriving at 17% instead; seventeen percent of 1,041,602 students is only 177,072 – a substantial difference of 62,496 students.
As noted above, 40% of all public school students in Indiana receive free lunches from the NSLP, and an additional 9% receive reduced-rates. This translates to 416,614 public students receiving free meals, and 93,774 more students receiving reduced-rates.
With the NSLP, Students are entitled to free lunches if their household’s income is below 130% of the annual income poverty level (currently, this amounts to $21,756 for a family of four); one hundred and thirty percent of $21,756 is $28,283. The NSLP also provides reduced-rate lunches to students whose household incomes are below 185% of the annual income poverty level. One-hundred and eighty-five percent of $21,756 is $ 40,249.
Moreover, Children who are members of households that receive food stamp benefits (SNAP) or cash assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant (TANF), as well as migrant, runaway, and homeless children all qualify for free meals. There are 379,000 students receiving SNAP funds in Indiana, and 65,252 total receiving TANF funds.
To review, students qualify for free lunches in the NSLP if:
a) Their household earns less than $28,283 per year (for a family of four), or
b) Their household receives SNAP or TANF benefits, or
c) They are migrants, runaways, or homeless.
And under the NSLP students qualify for reduced lunches if:
a) Their household earns less than $40,249 per year (for a family of four).
Adding it all up
At this point, it would serve us to note that 379,000 out of 1,041,602 is 36.9%; this means that nearly thirty-seven percent of all public school students in Indiana automatically qualify for NSLP benefits on account of their enrollment in the SNAP program.
Since 49% of all public school students in Indiana receive NSLP benefits altogether, if we subtract the 37% of them who are automatically eligible from their participation in the SNAP program, we only have a differential of 12% yet to be reckoned; twelve percent of 1,041,602 students is only 124,992. And even the low-ball GOP estimate of a 17% rate of child poverty in the state figures out to 177,072 students – 52,000 more than necessary to come up with the 49% rate of enrollment in NSLP that the Indiana legislature is so worked up about.
And there are a few other ways to qualify, as you will recall. By my estimates, there are about 1,500 homeless children in Indiana, and around 5,000 runaways still enrolled in school. And there are at least 2,000 migrant children in the state as well, although estimates are harder to make.
a) Between 177,000 and 239,000 students live below the poverty line, thus qualifying automatically for NSLP.
b) Over 379,000 students qualify for NSLP via SNAP.
c) Over 65,000 students qualify for NSLP via TANF.
d) At least 1,500 students qualify for NSLP because they are homeless.
e) At least 5,000 students qualify for NSLP because they are runaways.
f) At least 2,000 students qualify for NSLP because they are migrants.
g) These figures add up to at least 629,500 students out of 1,041,602 total; this amounts to over 60% of public school students.
h) 60% > 49%, Indiana GOP.
a) Students qualify for free meals when their household makes less than 130% of the poverty rate ($28,000 per year).
b) Students qualify for reduced-rate meals if their household brings in less than 185% ($40,000 per year).
c) The median household income in Indiana is $46,438 (using 2011 numbers).
d) Based on these figures, it seems likely that at least 40% of all public school students qualify for NSLP benefits of some sort based solely on their aggregate household income.
The Bottom Line
The meme in question made the claim that “Governor Mike Pence and the Indiana GOP are cutting back on free school lunches so they can give money to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.” Since there is no evidence of a this-for-that, quid pro quo exchange, the claim is absurd on its face. It cannot be interpreted as true in a literal sense of the word.
There is a deeper message hidden in the meme, however. Beneath the gloss, the creators of the meme want to demonstrate that the Indiana GOP values business revenues more than they do the health and well-being of our children.
In their defense, Hoosier Republicans counter that if fraud is not already rampant in the state, then at the very least the potential for widespread abuse is present, and should be remedied.
They argued that the number of enrolled students in the NSLP was excessive. They argued, in the wake of the Great Recession, that 49% enrollment was evidence of fraud in the system, simply because child poverty rates were much lower than enrollment rates.
Upon analysis, I can only conclude that their cries of fraud were just as untrue as the claim made that the Indiana GOP cut funding for school lunches specifically so that they may issue a business loan to the Speedway. There are numerous ways to account for the high enrollment in the state without resorting to accusations of wrong doing among your poorest constituents. But this wasn’t about correcting an existing problem, at its core. This maneuver was about who controls Indiana’s purse strings – will it be the state or federal government?
It would seem that, by switching the metric from the NSLP figures to the state’s textbook program’s numbers, the GOP was merely looking for a way to increase their leverage in determining how much additional money the state must grant schools to help educate the children who are most at risk. They want to distribute funds as they see fit, and have no problem cloaking their desire with projections of their own depravity upon the most downtrodden among us. And not just the downtrodden, mind you – they will be saving money by denying benefits to their children, while calling good people liars and cheats.
At the end of the day, the meme is preposterous – but no more preposterous than the justification Indiana’s GOP gave for the switch in standards in the first place.
“Pence signs $100 million Speedway funding bill,” written for the Associated Press, and published on 05/10/13.
“State won’t use free lunch program as poverty indicator: Funding to be based on state’s textbook program,” written by Maureen Hayden for CNHI, and published on 05/27/13.
“Changes to meal program are food for thought,” written by Maureen Hayden for CNHI, and published on 05/28/13.
“Federal School Nutrition Programs,” resource provided by the New America Foundation.
“Public School Enrollment (Number) – 2012,” data provided by Indiana Youth Institute.
“Children in poverty (Percent) – 2011,” data provided by National KIDS COUNT Program.
“Spotlight on Indiana Poverty and Opportunity,” data provided by Spotlight on Poverty.
“Child Population Under 18 by Age Group (Number) – 2011,” data provided by Indiana Youth Institute.
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