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Free Meals, “Free Markets”, and Infrastructure for Democracy


Martha McCluskey (@MarthaMcCluskey) is Professor Emerita at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, and President of the Association for the Promotion of Political Economy and the Law (APPEAL).

This post is part of a symposium on Maxine Eichner’s book, The Free Market Family.

In 1969, the Black Panther party’s free breakfast programs served 20,000 children across 19 cities, “one of the biggest and baddest things we ever did,” as a former Panther activist reflected. The Panthers added food security to their initial focus on anti-Black police violence as a matter of survival as well as strategy. Businesses, religious groups, and community members worked together to provide and share meals in a practice of cultivating well-being through solidarity, collective care, and education.

The Panthers served breakfasts free of individual scrutiny or income screening, as a model for interracial organizing and for an economy of people “motivated by love and concern” to extend care beyond their own families. The success of this “entitlement” vision likely contributed to political momentum for establishing the federal school breakfast program in 1975. It also spurred the FBI to target the breakfast programs as a major political threat deserving violent disruption.

Democracy grows from expanding, not suppressing, the power to nourish families. In her book The Free-Market Family, Maxine Eichner compiles devastating evidence that “free market” policies cut differently across lines of race, class, and family form to undermine the health, security, and dreams of most Americans. Eichner attributes the puzzling political success of these policies to the institutional power of super-wealthy libertarians like Charles Koch and to longstanding white racism. 

Both factors reveal the constitutive political economic role of family provisioning. Free-market myth-makers advance an anti-democratic politics of unequal public support for families as well as for food or energy industries (including the Koch enterprises). The ideal of self-reliance is used to rationalize a state and market structured to make most families dependent on scarce and insecure resources controlled by wealthy private capital owners.  The free-market story constructs collective family support as “social redistribution” that takes away some families’ hard-earned market gains to help less productive others. That story obscures the realities of markets organized to enrich a privileged few with short-term gains won by keeping many families unhealthy, fragile, and divided against each other.   

At the start of the Reagan presidency, I worked for two different youth service programs in rural Maine that soon closed after losing federal funding. Using a racialized trope of “welfare queens” cheating responsible “taxpayers,” Reagan promoted a new “Reaganomics” focused on cutting funds for public social programs, including school meals and job training, while increasing military spending and reducing taxes on the wealthy. Nonetheless, I got another Reagan-era job at a federally funded agency providing adults over age 60 with free meals and services for socializing, learning, volunteering, and access to community resources. I recall staff explaining that the program helps keep older men healthy and at home when their wives can no longer cook and shop for them due to death or disability.

Several decades later, that federal senior nutrition program continues to provide free meals to older adults with no means-testing. Because it is not an “entitlement,” however, its resources have declined to levels far short of current need and demand. The Trump administration proposed deeper cuts to funds for this program as well as for school lunch support, arguing that “taxpayers” were entitled to more definitive proof of economic payoff. 

Shifting the economic frame, the Biden administration’s American Families Plan and American Jobs Plan propose major public investments in caretaking as key infrastructure for successful market production. Yet the idea that everyday care for human bodies and minds is as economically valuable as building and maintaining bridges has generated fierce opposition.

What is at stake in this politics of infrastructure is not economic success per se, but rather what kind of economy succeeds, and for whom. Who gets family support, on what terms, and in what form and quality, are questions that fundamentally shape control over state and market. By feeding impoverished children, the Black Panthers asserted the legitimacy of Black power and the value of caring for children of color. Biden’s care infrastructure proposal similarly asserts the power to democratize both state and market, not just to support existing systems. People are more likely to put their trust in democratic government, rather than celebrity billionaires, quack conspiracies, or mega-corporations, if they have tangible regular experiences of widely shared “public things” that improve their lives.  Further, democracy is more likely to thrive when access to family care does not depend on targeting seemingly less valuable “others” for sacrifice, subjugation, or exclusion. 

A trillion-dollar federal investment in current children – and their parents, older and disabled relatives, neighbors, and care providers — undoubtedly will change communities, businesses, and families in ways that will have many unintended and unpredictable consequences. We cannot reasonably pin down the extent to which parents of young children will use this support to devote more of their lives to work, to marriage, or to raising children who will generate more tax dollars or corporate profits. That uncertainty is not a bug of “social engineering” but a feature of changing market bargaining power. 

Major public investments in direct human care are likely to alter many people’s options for caring and earning.  By supporting high quality and affordable care, these investments will enhance the resilience and leverage of care providers, recipients, and family earners, increasing their power to advance their work and family preferences and protect their interests in the event of future risks (like divorce or death, job loss, and illness) or opportunities for reshaping careers, families, education, and health. Whether those incentive effects  count as “moral hazard” or  “moral opportunity”– or whether the outcome represents increased dependency or freedom — depends whose power deserves public value.

Free and unstigmatized meals may indeed give some older and whiter men more power to remain in their own homes, replacing unpaid care they previously received from wives. Yet that incentive effect is likely to count as a societal benefit rather than a threat to market or state. In contrast, if public support gives low-income mothers more power to care for themselves and their children free from exploitative employers or spouses, then this behavior change is more likely to be perceived a distortion of a market normally structured to value those mothers (and their children) as a source of cheap and submissive labor for others.   

 Even if Biden succeeds in winning political support for inclusive public care investments, those who gain from the existing anti-family market will retain substantial countervailing power.  Some employers may increase discrimination against mothers, some corporations may raise consumer prices or shift investments from jobs to shareholder payouts or to race-baiting “free market” campaigns against social spending.  Nonetheless, the comprehensive rather than narrowly tailored design of Biden’s proposed care support is a key feature for effectively shifting bargaining power.  The combination of increased care work wages, investments in care facilities, support for expanding home care, along with price caps on high-quality child care, paid family leave, expanded support for higher education and health insurance, and increased tax credits for parents will help more families with varied needs and interests better resist pressure to sacrifice for others’ gain.  If more families benefit across divisions of geography, race, education level, marital status, and class, that could strengthen the constituency for defending and expanding family support.

Positioned as infrastructure, public care becomes a baseline for economic productivity, not a special boost for the neediest. Those using free-market rhetoric to mystify economic realities know that this infrastructure investment could weaken the power to constrain democracy. Recently the Heritage Foundation argued that Biden’s proposal to exempt some communities from individualized means-testing for federally-funded school lunches usurps its anti-poverty mission in favor of a new “entitlement” for upper income families. It is not coincidental that this organization’s political arm is also organizing political leaders and corporate donors to make voting less of an “entitlement” and more of a costly and aggressively policed class and race privilege.There may be no such thing as a free lunch, but the costs of providing or forgoing meals, and who pays or charges, are political questions of economic power and democracy.

The existing economy reflects massive investments in an anti-democratic infrastructure geared toward externalizing the costs of profiting from human and environmental damage. Whatever the precise net benefits of re-engineering that infrastructure, Eichner makes it clear that the costs of the current anti-family design are worth much more attention and resistance