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Republican governors in 15 states are turning down food money for 8 million children

States with some of the highest rates of children living in poverty are rejecting bipartisan aid

Alex Woodward
Saturday 13 January 2024 01:50 GMT
Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds is among state officials that refused to enrol in a new food assistance program this summer
Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds is among state officials that refused to enrol in a new food assistance program this summer (AFP via Getty Images)

Republican governors in more than a dozen states are shutting out more than 8 million children from a new federal food assistance program to support lower-income families this summer.

Thirty-five states, including 13 states with GOP governors, have enrolled in the plan, which provides an additional $120 per child to buy food during the summer months when such assistance is not available in schools, where many American children rely on free or reduced lunch programs.

The plan was part of a bipartisan budget agreement in Congress two years ago. But Republican governors in a dozen states with some of the highest rates of children living in poverty are turning it down.

Some officials said the administrative costs to implement the Summer EBT plans in their states were too high, or fired out dismissive, ideologically driven objections to food assistance programs for families in need. “I don’t believe in welfare,” Nebraska Governor Jim Pillein toldThe Journal Star. Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt said it merely adds “more bureaucracy for families to wade through.”

Governor Tate Reeves of Mississippi – which has the highest rates of children living in poverty and the highest rates of food insecurity in the US – rejected the program as an attempt from President Joe Biden and Democratic officials to “expand the welfare state.”

More than 22 per cent of Mississippi’s households do not have enough food to eat to maintain a proper diet, according to a recent US Census Bureau report. Twenty-eight percent of the children in the state live in poverty, nearly twice as much as the national average.

Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds said “an EBT card does nothing to promote nutrition at a time when childhood obesity has become an epidemic”.

US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, former Democratic governor of the state, told reporters in Iowa that she’s made an “unfortunate” decision. The governor is turning away $29m for food to support 240,000 children in the state.

In Louisiana, where 27 per cent of children are living in poverty, a change in administration partially explained the state’s rejection of the program, though it’s unclear whether newly inaugurated far-right Republican Governor Jeff Landry – who took office this month from outgoing Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards – will chase his state’s enrolment.

Roughly 600,000 children in the state would benefit from the program, according to the USDA.

Under new leadership, the state has not formally opted out nor joined the program, but officials said the delay won’t prevent the state from signing up if it wants to.

Alabama, Alaska, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Vermont and Wyoming have also declined to join.

Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds is among state officials that refused to enrol in a new food assistance program this summer. (AFP via Getty Images)

Roughly 21 million families in 35 other states and in all five US territories and four tribal nations will be eligible to receive up to $120 per child this summer, reaching roughly 70 per cent of eligible families, according to the USDA.

“When the school year ends, millions of children from households with low incomes lose access to the school meals they rely on,” Luis Guardia, president of the Food Research & Action Center, said in a statement shared with The Independent.

Existing summer nutrition programs, or “summer meals,” reach only a fraction of the children who rely on free and reduced-price school meals during the school year, he said. The new Summer EBT plan aims to bridge that gap.

The enrollment deadline arrived as Congress faces another looming government shutdown and a deadline to keep critically needed programs afloat during a hunger and poverty crisis that exploded with the expiration of Covid-19 aid.

The Biden administration is warning lawmakers that 2 million Americans could be turned away from a critical federal assistance program for low-income families if Congress fails to avert a shutdown this month.

Tate Reeves, governor of Mississippi, where more than one in four children are living in poverty, said a new summer food assistance program would ‘expand the welfare state’ (AP)

A deal in a bitterly divided Congress needs at least $1bn more to support the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC, according to White House officials. The program, which supports roughly 7 million families a year, is facing a budget shortfall thanks to rising food costs and more people participating.

That funding gap could deny support to 2 million people and their families, according to a December report by the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The number of children living in poverty in the US more than doubled over the last year following the expiration of federal pandemic aid that Congress declined to renew despite a historic plunge in the nation’s poverty rates.

Poverty among children surged from 5.2 per cent to 12.4 per cent, marking the largest surge in child poverty since the US Census Bureau’s adoption of the Supplemental Poverty Measure in 2009.

Food insecurity across the US rose to 12.8 per cent, or 17 million households, in 2022, compared to the previous year, according to government figures. That’s an increase of 4 million households within a single year.

Families whose incomes are below the federal poverty threshold routinely struggle to access affordable nutritious food because of rising costs; among people enrolled in federal assistance programs, affordability is the most-reported barrier to eating healthier diets, according to a 2021 USDA report. An additional $120 in the summer months for families could offer those families an urgently needed boost.

“Hunger is a policy choice, and this is just one more unfortunate example of that fact,” Iowa Hunger Coalition board chair Luke Elzinga said in response to the state’s rejection of the Summer EBT program. “It’s deplorable that Iowa’s leadership has chosen to make feeding children a political issue.”

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