Hiltzik: The GOP’s war on children’s health


Question: Is there anything more absurd than red state governors rejecting federal programs that directly benefit their constituents?

Easy answer: yes. They are the explanations they give to make their actions seem like sober and responsible fiscal decisions.

The Republican governors of Iowa and Nebraska brought us the latest examples of this phenomenon just before Christmas.

Announce three days before Christmas that we have deliberately chosen not to feed hungry children? The Dickensian parallels write themselves.

— Luke Elzinga, Iowa Hunger Coalition

At issue in both states is a summer feeding program that provides $40 a month per child in June, July and August to families eligible for free or reduced-price school meals.

The program is known as the Summer Children’s Electronic Benefit Transfer Program or Summer EBT. Its purpose is to provide eligible families with a financial bridge during the months when their children are not in school.

The governors did not see it that way. Here’s how Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds justified her decision to reject the federal subsidy for low-income Iowans: “COVID-era federal cash benefit programs are not sustainable and do not provide long-term solutions.” for problems that affect children and families.”

Nebraska Governor Jim Pillen’s explanation was: “I don’t believe in welfare.”

Both governors said their states already had programs to address the food needs of low-income families, and that was enough.

It is worth noting that both Reynolds’ and Pillen’s explanations are fundamentally incoherent. What does Reynolds mean by calling the program “unsustainable”? It would remain in place as long as Congress continues to fund it, which is almost certain as long as Republicans don’t take control of both chambers and kill it.

As for Pillen’s joke about “wellness,” he didn’t bother to explain what he thinks is wrong with “wellness” as such; she simply uttered the term knowing that it is a warning to conservative voters intended to dehumanize the program’s beneficiaries.

What makes these governors’ denials that much more irresponsible is that the federal government is footing 100% of the benefit bill; States only have to agree to pay half of the administrative costs. Their shares amount to $2.2 million in Iowa and $300,000 in Nebraska, according to estimates from those states.

In exchange, 240,000 Iowa children would receive a total of $28.8 million in benefits over the three summer months, and 150,000 Nebraskans would receive a total of $18 million. It sounds like a hugely profitable investment in children’s health in those states.

The governors’ defenses smack of the same strained plausibility of those statements made by banks, streaming networks and other commercial entities explaining that their price increases and service reductions are “efforts to serve them better.”

Politicians claim they are doing their taxpayers a huge favor by keeping an eagle eye on their state spending, without mentioning how much they are giving up to be budget hawks, or how many citizens will suffer in the process.

Reynolds’ defense of his action was particularly fatuous. “An EBT card does nothing to promote nutrition at a time when childhood obesity has become an epidemic,” he said.

Not only is there no evidence that family grocery shopping under this or any other federal program promotes obesity, the opposite is true. It is universally accepted among poverty and nutrition professionals that food insecurity, which is widespread among low-income families, increases obesity rates.

Iowa and Nebraska may not be the only red states rejecting the summer food program. Before the Jan. 1 deadline to accept the program, 30 states had done so, including at least nine red states. But the list published by the Department of Agriculture may not be complete at the time of this writing. Iowa and Nebraska, however, are the only two states that have publicly announced their opposition.

The governors’ announcements drew immediate criticism from anti-poverty advocates.

“Announce three days before Christmas that we have deliberately chosen not to feed hungry children? The Dickensian parallels write themselves,” said Luke Elzinga, president of the Iowa Hunger Coalition.

These are not the only cases in which Republican state administrations have imposed on their residents what we might call the GOP’s death wish.

In 10 states, Republican governors or legislatures (or both) have blocked Medicaid expansion for low-income residents under the Affordable Care Act for a decade, even though the federal government takes up 90%. of the costs of benefits. Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, has tried to implement the program in her state, but the Republican-controlled Legislature has refused to provide money for the expansion of the state budget.

Nebraska did not implement Medicaid expansion until 2020, only after voters demanded the expansion through a ballot measure in 2018 (Iowa accepted it after its introduction in 2013, effective the following January 1, under Gov. Republican Terry Branstad).

The hostility of red state political leaders toward public health measures is also evident in their records on COVID treatments, especially vaccines. COVID death rates have consistently tracked the level of Trump voting in the 2020 election: the COVID death rate in the reddest counties (i.e., those with the highest percentage of Trump votes) is almost three times higher than that of the bluest counties.

COVID vaccination rates are a reflection of the same trend: Counties Trump won have lower vaccination rates than those that voted for Biden in 2020, surely a reflection of efforts by conservative Republican political leaders to deliberately undermine confidence in the vaccine and blocking it. mandates.

Efforts to roll back child labor laws, especially to allow children to work in hazardous conditions, have been increasing, particularly in red states. In May, Iowa Governor Reynolds signed one of the most extreme rollbacks in the country.

The new law allows employers to hire children up to 14 years old to work in laundries or industrial factories; that children aged 16 and 17 carry out demolition, roofing, excavation and operating electrical machines, all of which were previously prohibited; and allowing teenagers as young as 14 to work shifts of up to six hours during the school year, among other changes. Most of these changes violate federal law, the Department of Labor reported to the Iowa Legislature. They passed anyway.

Of the 10 states that passed rollbacks of child labor protections in 2021-2023, as tracked by the union-affiliated Economic Policy Institute, seven were controlled by Republicans.

Reynolds and Pillen’s ads seem almost tailor-made to validate the adage that, for Republicans, “life begins at conception and ends at birth.” Iowa and Nebraska are anti-abortion states.

Iowa requires a 24-hour wait time to receive an abortion, prohibits state Medicaid coverage and requires parental consent for a minor’s abortion. Nebraska is much more restrictive. Abortion is prohibited at 12 weeks or later, Medicaid coverage and private health plan coverage are prohibited, and medication abortion (i.e., pills) must be performed in person because mailing pills to the patients.

In other words, despite making it difficult for women to terminate unwanted or dangerous pregnancies, both states make it difficult for low-income mothers to care for their children. The vicious circle does not explain how these policies must act together to “make a real commitment to family well-being,” in Reynolds’ words.

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