We need to change the poverty narrative in Nebraska

By Laurie Ponce, CSN Director

Recently, Nebraska Governor Jim Pillen turned down federal funding for the state to participate in the Summer EBT program, which would have provided kids who qualify for free and reduced lunches an extra $40 a month to use for eligible food purchases in the summer months.

January is National Poverty Awareness Month, which makes now a good time to discuss the impact of this decision and the manner in which it was made.

In 2022, the state declined federal money for emergency rental assistance. The decision by then-Governor Pete Ricketts, was disappointing, as was his rhetoric to justify refusing the funds. His narrative suggested a risk of creating a “welfare state” and characterized those who needed emergency rental assistance as people who have been enabled to rely on government handouts rather than to work.

Governor Pillen’s comments did not invoke similar claims, but his reasoning, in addition to believing that other programs already cover any need, was that he didn’t believe in welfare.

There is harm in making statements that further marginalize Nebrakans living in poverty, particularly children.

Over the years, a variety of policymakers have said that only those who are in need due to circumstances out of their control should get the government’s help: the disabled, the elderly, those having hardships during an emergency (like a pandemic), and children in at-risk circumstances.

Does it then follow that anyone who is not in one of these categories is an able-bodied person who should be able to meet their (and their family’s) own basic needs? And if one isn’t able to meet their own needs, does it mean that they aren’t working hard enough? Or are they doing something else wrong? I’m thinking about parents who are working full-time at the best jobs they can find. Are we comfortable with a poverty narrative that assumes the working-poor are not self-reliant or resourceful enough to justify help from the government?

We must acknowledge that there may be other relevant factors to be considered before deciding that the working poor and their children are wrongfully relying on government assistance. Without understanding why—and believing that there are indeed working-poor Nebraskans—policymakers will make assumptions that are not accurate about those who need help. Data shows that more than 70,000 kids in Nebraska do not consistently have enough food to eat.

I suspect most Nebraskans believe every child deserves to learn, thrive, and live up to their fullest potential. Children without basic necessities like food, housing and healthcare are at risk of devastating and lasting consequences. Does disliking welfare justify preventing access to needed resources? Or, is it because we can’t enable them to be freeloaders, these children of the working poor?

Food insecurity is a problem in Nebraska and it is unacceptable. It also calls into question the ideology that allows it. Regardless of ideologies, I don’t know of a single Nebraskan who would turn away a child in need even if they had few resources themselves. Why should we accept elected officials doing so, particularly when our federal tax dollars pay for these services for our very own Nebraskans?

By choice, Nebraska will not receive $18 million in federal funds for Summer EBT. Similarly, Nebraska lost millions of dollars that were available to help with housing costs, and Nebraska has not utilized available federal funding for other programs that directly affect children. I can’t reconcile refusing federal funds with the fact that when we don’t utilize them, the burden of funding basic needs falls on the state and local governments.

Now, due to the state’s actions, 175,00 eligible children in Nebraska will not get additional food assistance this summer—assistance that could have made a significant difference for Nebraska families.

I believe that Governor Pillen cares about all children. But, refusing federal money, and using a narrative that fails to acknowledge the challenges faced by hard-working Nebraskans, does not make sense for the wellbeing of Nebraska kids or our state.

If you are also having a difficult time making sense of the Governor’s decision, I encourage you to let him know your thoughts on the form found on his website. Also, consider supporting Sen. Jen Day’s LB 952, which would require DHHS to implement the Summer EBT program. Look out for public hearing information on our website.