Under Pressure From Angry Students, GOP Gov Reverses on Federal Summer Meals Funding

“It only took literally everyone in the entire state telling him that he was being a monster,” said one political scientist, “for him to do the absolute easiest thing and feed hungry kids.”

By Julia Conley. Published 2-13-2024 by Common Dreams

Photo: USDA/Public domain

As the deadline rapidly approached for state governments to accept federal funds for summer food assistance for children, Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen announced Monday that conversations with students from around the state had convinced him to take the funding—leaving just 14 Republican-led states still refusing the aid.

At a news conference, the GOP governor—who previously said he didn’t “believe in welfare” and would be forgoing $18 million for the Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer (Summer EBT) program—said he had changed his mind after “an evolution of information” about how young people across Nebraska would be affected by his decision.

Pillen said he spoke to students at a youth legislative day at the state Capitol earlier this month and during a visit to a school in Boys Town, Nebraska.

“They talked about being hungry, and they talked about the summer USDA program and, depending upon access, when they’d get a sack of food,” Pillen said Monday. “And from my seat, what I saw there, we have to do better in Nebraska.”

The funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will provide the families of an estimated 150,000 children across the state with pre-loaded EBT cards that they’ll be able to use for groceries, with $40 to spend per summer month. The children who qualify for the program are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches during the school year and other assistance programs such as Medicaid.

Lawmakers in the officially nonpartisan Nebraska Legislature had been pressuring Pillen to accept the funding, with state Sen. Jen Day, a registered Democrat, introducing a bill that would have forced the state to participate in the Summer EBT program. Her legislation had the support of state Sen. Ray Aguilar, who is registered as a Republican, but was stalled in the Senate after a hearing last week.

Day called Pillen’s reversal a “HUGE win for Nebraska kids, families, and local [agriculture] producers and small businesses.”

“I want to thank the governor for heeding the call of myself, my colleagues, and countless Nebraskans who asked the governor to rethink his decision,” Day said.

The deadline for states to accept the Summer EBT funding was originally January 1, but was extended to this Thursday.

Alabama, Alaska, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Vermont, and Wyoming—all led by Republican governors—were still planning to forgo the funding as of Tuesday, despite outcry from anti-poverty groups, pediatricians, and Democratic lawmakers.

Nebraska state Sen. Megan Hunt applauded the young residents who pushed Pillen to take the funding, saying it showed that “all voices make a positive difference.”

“This would not be possible without the tremendous amount of outreach and pressure the public put on our elected officials to do the right thing,” said Eric Savaiano, economic justice program manager for Nebraska Appleseed.

Ari Kohen, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, was careful not to heap much praise onto Pillen for agreeing to feed low-income children in the state, calling the governor “Nebraska’s own Ebenezer Scrooge.”

“It only took literally everyone in the entire state telling him that he was being a monster—and probably being haunted by some ghosts—for him to do the absolute easiest thing and feed hungry kids with someone else’s money,” said Kohen.

This work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).

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