GOP Congressman: My Idea To Force Poor Kids To Work For Lunch Not Directed At Poor Kids

A GOP Senate Candidate in Georgia attempts to back track, and runs off the rails in the process.

Jack Kingston

Congressman Jack Kingston, who just a few days ago said that children who received subsidized lunches should be forced to work, now says wasn’t really talking about poor kids:

Georgia Rep. Jack Kingston, who suggested children should sweep cafeteria floors to earn meals from the federal school lunch program, is clarifying his comments Friday, saying he meant all children should be instilled with a work ethic.

“This was a discussion about the work ethic in America and I think all kids of all socioeconomic brackets could prosper and learn a lot by having some sort of chores,” Kingston said Friday on CNN’s “New Day.”

The Republican lawmaker added that he never said “poor kids” and acknowledged that “I could have clarified that a lot better.”

Kingston, who is seeking the GOP nomination in Georgia’s Senate race next year, sparked backlash after he made comments Saturday during a meeting for the Jackson County Republican Party, in which, he suggested children “pay a dime, pay a nickel” or work for the subsidized meals by sweeping cafeteria floors.

“I understand that that would be an administrative problem, and I understand that it would probably lose you money. But think what we would gain as a society in getting people — getting the myth out of their head that there is such a thing as a free lunch,” Kingston said at the meeting.

However, while Kingston told CNN it was a larger discussion on work ethic that started with a question about what lessons people learned from jobs they had when they were younger, in the video, he says the program has a 16 percent error rate and is very expensive.

Kingston cited other schools who require community service before graduation or clean tables and said it wasn’t an indictment of low-income families.

“This wasn’t anything in a back room. This wasn’t a policy statement. This was a discussion,” Kingston said, slamming Democrats who he said planted a tracker to film his comments and then fundraise off of them.

There’s just one problem with Kingston’s quite obvious attempt to walk back his comments in the manner he does above is that what he’s saying now bears absolutely no resemblance to what he said earlier this week:

On Saturday, Kingston came out against free lunches, saying that children should have to pay at least a nominal amount or do some work like sweeping cafeteria floors.

“But one of the things I’ve talked to the secretary of agriculture about: Why don’t you have the kids pay a dime, pay a nickel to instill in them that there is, in fact, no such thing as a free lunch? Or maybe sweep the floor of the cafeteria — and yes, I understand that that would be an administrative problem, and I understand that it would probably lose you money. But think what we would gain as a society in getting people — getting the myth out of their head that there is such a thing as a free lunch,” he said.

As I noted when I wrote about this earlier this week, Kingston’s original comments were quite obviously directed at children who receive free or subsidized lunches at school, which typically if not universally means children who come from poor and lower middle class families. That strikes me as being fundamentally different than the idea of requiring all students to perform some kind of task around the school, which he suggests is what he was really talking about. Now, of course, I’m willing to concede that there is a part of the remarks that Kingston made at the meeting in question that haven’t been made public and perhaps there was a broader discussion of just that point. Even if that’s true, though, it doesn’t really change what Kingston actually said about children who receive subsidized lunches at school and the extent to which it singles them out for different treatment from their fellow classmates.

Moreover, as I noted in my earlier post on this issue, what he suggests is really nothing less that singling out the children in families in economic difficulty and suggesting that they are the ones who don’t know the value of a dollar or the importance of hard work. Isn’t this something that, arguably, couldn’t also be said of children in rich and upper middle class families too? If you grow up in a family where you get pretty much everything you want, and everything you don’t want, handed to you — whether its every toy in the world when you’re young, the latest iPhone when you get into the Middle School years, or an expensive brand new car that even many adults who go to work every day couldn’t afford on their own — are you really “learning the value” of a dollar or hard work? It strikes me that the answer to that question is a pretty emphatic no. Indeed, one could make the argument that children who grow up in that kind of environment potentially end up learning less about those values than a child from a poor family who, very early on, begins to notice the real world impact of living on a lower income or in a family going through financial difficulties. That’s not to say that parents who have the means to provide extras for their kids shouldn’t do so, but it does suggest that there comes a time when being over indulgent sends a message that may not be in the long term interests of the child.

That’s not to say, of course, that every child in a well-to-do family will end up becoming a lazy elitist with an over inflated sense of their own self-entitlement to whatever they want, or that every child in a poor family will end up becoming a modern day example of the characters created by Horatio Alger.  In both cases, how children from any type of family is going to end up will depend on numerous factors, most importantly the lessons they are taught by their parents and others family members. Rich parents don’t necessarily end up becoming that person who indulges their child’s wants at every turn. Indeed, there are several contemporary examples of uber-rich parents who don’t seem to be engaging in that kind of parenting at all, such as Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, both of whom have already made plans to leave the vast majority of their estates to charitable foundations rather than leaving it to their children. On the other side of the coin, there are countless examples of the parents in less well-to-do families who serve as bad role models for their children, as well as plenty of examples of parents who do. Contemporary examples of adults who have achieved much despite growing up in what were obviously not ideal circumstances are Bill Clinton and Clarence Thomas, both of whom grew up relatively poor and, in Clinton’s case, with a birth father who was an alcoholic.

The point of this divergence from Kingston’s attempt to back track on his original comments is that, while it is indeed important that children growing up learn things like “the value of a dollar” and the importance of hard work, is that these are values that can really only be taught by parents. Forcing a poor kid to push a broom around the cafeteria in order to be able to get his or her subsidized lunch isn’t going to teach them anything other than the fact that they are different from everyone else. That’s just as likely to create a sense or resentment and embarrassment as it is to teach any lessons at all. Indeed, rather than focusing on how we can get our schools to, in effect, become surrogate parents when it comes to teaching values, people like Kingston ought to be focusing on how we can improve education so that these kids will have a chance to get out of the cycle of poverty and create a better life for the children that they’ll have someday. That will be of much more benefit to them than whether or not thery learned the finer points of busing a table when they were twelve years old.

FILED UNDER: Education, Environment, Parenting, , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    My guess is that he doesn’t think good grades takes work.

  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Isn’t this something that, arguably, couldn’t also be said of children in rich and upper middle class families too?

    Oh Doug, where have you been? When you are rich, this is a mental disorder. I give you “affluenza”.

  3. Pharoah Narim says:

    Shouldn’t you be out making sure the economy is structured to where said kids will have jobs as a result of their work ethic? Work ethic assumes a reward or goal as a result. Fool.

  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Pharoah Narim: Well, he is making sure that there is at least one productive job being filled by a waste of oxygen. The one he would take if he had to actually go into the private sector.

  5. Pharoah Narim says:

    My experience with rich kids (or rich to me but probably upper middle class) was that, sure…the were skaters. But there were opportunities available to them and they wanted to, at the very least, maintain the lifestyle they enjoyed growing up. So from an achievement perspective the only difference between the average poor kid and his rich counterpoint is opportunity. They both will achieve to the level of their parents.

  6. Pharoah Narim says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Here Here— what I gather from the youngsters I converse with is that college and the like is a waste of time of money if you are going to be living at home and waiting tables after you finish…with 20K+ in student loan debt. We’ve created a giant demotivating force for the young that buffoons like this need to be working to relieve.

  7. Tyrell says:

    I read a few years ago where a teacher got into trouble for having some students pick up a few towels off the restroom floor.
    Prohibiting students from helping keep the school clean does not teach a good lesson.

  8. Ron Beasley says:

    I suppose I grew up as upper middle class in the 50s and early 60s. My father owned 2 grocery stores, a drug store and a custom meat market. I was stocking shelves when I was six or seven and by the time I was a Jr and Sr in high school I was running the weekend shift at one of the grocery stores. Work was part of my life early on which influenced my ethics until I retired a few years ago. After retirement I became the 24/7 care giver for my aging mother until she passed away about 11 months ago and it never occurred to me that it was not my responsibility.

  9. Ebenezer_Arvigenius says:

    Thank you Doug 🙂

  10. humanoid.panda says:

    @Ron Beasley: Mandating all kids in a given school to do chores at school and encouraging them to volunteer/work after school is one thing. Making sure that poor kids know their place, which is what Kingston and Gingrich, the originator of this particular meme are after, is quite another.

  11. Ron Beasley says:

    @humanoid.panda: I agree, as I said in the comments of the earlier post my school had some of the poorest and some of the wealthiest kids in Portland. The poor kids were stigmatized every morning when they were taken out of class for breakfast in the morning and everyone knew who was getting the “free” lunch. My point was it would be beneficial to all children to establish a work ethic early.

  12. Maggie says:

    okay, all babies conceived have the right to life, until they are born??? Then we don’t want to give food stamps, welfare or free lunches or medical care to these children whose parents probably cannot afford to take care of their needs without assistance. Where is the logic in that. “Hey Lady, you gotta have that kid, even if it was an accidental pregnancy & you don’t have the means to take care of it., because we know what is best for that child, he needs to be born, hungry, poor and taught to do menial labor at age 5-6 so he can grow up strong????”

  13. MM2 says:

    @Tyrell: in related news: different things are different.

  14. rudderpedals says:

    I predict Kingston and his fellow travellers will be walking comments like this back right up until the election. See for ex., trading chickens for health care (Angle), rapes can’t cause pregnancy (all), drug test food stamp applicants (Radel), ad nauseum

  15. Tillman says:

    Well, of course he wasn’t talking about poor kids! He was talking about kids who get free lunches!

    In his mind, these are two very different kinds of kids. One has lazy parents and the other has freeloading parents.

  16. Gromitt Gunn says:

    This guy is a entire box of tools.

    We grew up in pretty bad shape financially. Not quite free lunch level, but close. And food stamps were involved from time to time.

    But my brothers and I learned lots of lessons about money and the value of work growing up. If we did not do our chores for the week, we would get a quarter on Sunday morning. Doing your chores got you 50 cents. 25 cents went into the offering tray at church, no matter what, and then with the other quarter we could get whatever we wanted at the penny candy store after church. If you didn’t have another quarter, you just had to watch the others get their stash for the week.

    Around 10, it became paper routes and mowing lawns. At fifteen, I bristled at the clothes my mom was buying us for back to school. She told me that I could buy whatever clothes I wanted with my own money, and that since we were in the mall already, I probably should start applying for jobs. “So, you mean, if I buy it, I can wear it, and you won’t say *anything*?” “That’s how it works. You pay for the haircut, you pay for the clothes, you can do what you want.” Hello, Burger King.

    At sixteen, it was “I’m going to want a car once I get my license, so I can drive to school and work” and the response was “You save up $1000 this summer and we’ll find you a decent used car and pitch in the rest, but you’re also going to have to help get your brothers around.”

    Not sure what the point is beyond growing up poor (in my case, working poor), I think I understood the value of a dollar a lot more than most of my friends and classmates. And this guy is a d-bag.

  17. KM says:

    Maybe somebody clued him in that the free lunch program serves everyone that meets its requirements, not just the stereotyped group he assumed. Maybe someone pointed out that group includes children of serving military, children that live in Republican districts, etc and maybe, just maybe, they kinda resented his implications that they are the freeloading Other.

    Just like the infamous 47% remark, the general public realized Hey-He-Included-Me! when he sent out his dogwhistle. It was supposed to reference Those People but oops you happened to get lumped in with them. Kingston was trying to say that these kids, having benefited from society’s help at a young age, will grow up to take advantage of it as adults a la the Welfare Queen. Thus, smack ’em down now to curb that. So sorry, Jack, but a sizable population of this country managed to grow up with this program and are responsible taxpayers – they resent the implications. So sorry, Jack, but sane people realize you don’t punish children for the economic realities of their parents. So sorry, Jack, but no one buys you didn’t mean to refer to poor kids when you referred to them learning there’s no free lunch.

    So sorry, Jack, no one’s buying this bullshit. Now go scrub some floors so you can learn the value of real work and go do the damn job you were elected for.

  18. stonetools says:

    I would just prefer that Congressman Kingston let his freak flag fly and just say outright that the children of the poor are serfs and must be seen to be serfs. Heck, it’s what most conservatives believe anyway. Kingston’s problem is that he was honest by mistake.

  19. Woody says:

    Kingston’s original comments were quite obviously directed at children who receive free or subsidized lunches at school

    Well, let’s be clear: Rep. Kingston’s comments were about poor children. But they were directed at Georgian Republicans, particularly the activist base. Because he has won office in that state, it is probable that he knows what will appeal to those individuals.

    Years of watching Fox News and conversing with my Republican acquaintances tell me that this is a widespread belief among American conservatives. It is likely Rep. Kingston has well proven his bona fides, as the GOP boogeymen (PC police, non-Murdoch media, etc) attack his statements. Having the right enemies is a sure sign of worth in that world.

    This fits with my belief that the true goal of American conservatives is to establish an aristocracy with a state church. Rep. Kingston’s comments would fit right in with 17th century nobles grumbling about the unworthy peasants.

  20. Al says:

    So, was he a liar then or is he a liar now?

  21. al-Ameda says:

    So, Jack is of the opinion that by walking his comments back to “work ethic” and “no free lunch,” and turning schools into work camps for (not just poor) kids that he’s explained his way out of this?

    Honestly, Jack, like many people want to see people shamed as part of accepting a public benefit. Why not Scarlett Letters – “SL” – for those students accepting a school lunch?

  22. Nothing but good would come from having everyone who gets something for free from the government do something to work for it. Personally, I’ve worked for a meal (and nothing more) thousands of times, usually in front of my peers for all to see. There is absolutely nothing wrong with asking kids to do work. Period.

  23. David in KC says:

    @Al: Yes.

  24. MarkedMan says:

    @Gromitt Gunn: My upbringing was pretty similar. Newspaper routes, working at a car wash, working 60 hour weeks in the summer as a busboy, then my first “real” job at a hospital kitchen when i turned 16. I was very proud last year when my 15 year old daughter copped a 10 hour a week job at a family friend’s production company. (Had to be under the table because we are in another country and are not going to be able to get a work permit for a kid.)

    I’m 53 now and have never been unemployed. It’s one of the few things that really scares the hell out of me and if it ever happens I really don’t want some smug politician to try to humiliate my kids if they end up needing a breakfast. This reflexive need the Repub establishment feels to spit on everyone they can just really pulls my chain. Another reason I won’t be voting “R” any time soon.

  25. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    people like Kingston ought to be focusing on how we can improve education so that these kids will have a chance to get out of the cycle of poverty and create a life for the children that they’ll have someday. That will be of much more benefit to them than whether or not thery learned the finer points of busing a table when they were twelve years old.

    Clearly, you have not been listening to Superdestroyer enough. If you had, you would realize that our society is an entirely zero-sum operation where immigrants and poor people take opportunities away from others and if some has to be poor it needs to be you and not me. Kingston cannot focus on improving education because in the dark night of his soul, he knows that every poor kid that gets a good education and job makes one more chance that his kid won’t.

    On another matter, how does the sound come out with his head that far up his arse?

  26. Pharoah Narim says:

    @Gromitt Gunn: I came along on the tail end of this era when it was still possible for kids to find some good labor intensive work to press hard at accomplishing. Now, all the grass cutting, paper routes, etc jobs are filled by grown men and women supporting families. The kids of today do have work ethic issues and a portion of that is because they’ve been crowded out of the labor market. And perhaps rightfully so, a breadwinner feeding their family is obviously a bit higher priority than a teen making money for clothes and video games.

  27. Ginger says:

    A better thing would be to force the parents to come out for an hour or two a month and volunteer at the school. Cleaning up. making copies, checking id’s something.

    This is punishing the kids for something beyond their control and sitting them up for teasing and bullying.

    I do get assisstance, I work two jobs, though so I’m not abusing the system, my kids do qualify for free lunch, when they don’t bring theirs from home. My kids aren’t lazy and neither am I I wouldn’t want them targeted for something beyond their control.