Does Iowa need more Washington agencies to feed people?

Authored by John Hendrickson

Gov. Kim Reynolds is being unfairly maligned as cold hearted for turning down $29 million in federal funds that would provide assistance to feed low income children during the summer. Iowa is one of 15 states that declined the federal funds to participate in the federal program.

Critics of Reynolds are arguing that this is just one more example of Republicans trying to hurt the poor and, in this case, deprive hungry children of food. An issue like this generates much emotion, but Reynolds is correct in turning down the federal funds. She understands federalism and that programs are already in place to help feed low-income Iowans. Further, federal funds are not “free” money and often they come with strings attached that can cost states more.

The program, Summer EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer), was part of the federal government’s response to the COVID pandemic. The Summer EBT program would provide $40 a month per child for food assistance during the summer. This is on top of expanding existing federal programs.

President Joe Biden is considering the possibility of implementing a year-round school lunch program. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service has “finalized a rule that expands the number of students who qualify for reduced lunches during the school year.” If 25 percent of a public school’s student body qualifies then the rule would allow 100 percent of the students to receive the benefit regardless of income level. The Biden Administration is also hoping to expand this by including the summer months.

Reynolds decided to reject the funding because COVID government spending programs are not sustainable, and she argues that the EBT program does not ensure healthier kids. As Reynolds states, programs are already in place that can serve families. These are programs administered by the federal government and also by the Iowa Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education. This is in addition to the work of private organizations.

Recently, Reynolds announced a program that will provide $900,000 in grants to school districts and other qualified organizations to provide summer meals and snacks. The program works within existing federal programs and the funds used come from the American Rescue Plan Act. Iowa, just as with other states, participates in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the governor’s office reported that “1.6 million meals and snacks were served to children 18 and younger throughout Iowa as part of the Summer Food Service Program and Seamless Summer Option program.” This is in addition to “six regional food banks and 1,200 non-profit organizations, including food pantries and meal sites, that also provide food assistance and childhood nutrition programs across all 99 counties in Iowa.”

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaking with attendees at Reynolds’s Fair-Side Chats at JR’s South Pork Ranch at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Greg Skidmore)

Some of the private organizations, in addition to the food banks and other pantries across Iowa, include the Help Us Stop Hunger (HUSH) program. HUSH is a program that involves Iowa sportsman, the Department of Natural Resources, and food banks that allows deer hunters to donate venison, a quality source of protein, to help hungry Iowans. In 2022 alone, hunters donated venison which provided close to 530,000 meals.

Since 2008, Meals from the Heartland, and Iowa charity, has provided over 230 million meals to families in Iowa, across the United States, and overseas. This is just one example of the many private charities, many of which, were initiated by churches to serve their fellow Iowans.

Iowa clearly has the infrastructure in place both in terms of public and private programs to address food insecurity. Iowa is also a top agricultural producing state. Iowa ranks third nationally in terms of production with only Texas and California producing more. Iowa is a large producer of corn, soybeans, and pork, much of which is exported or used for livestock feed or ethanol production. Iowa produces about 10% of the nation’s food supply. Overall, a trend is developing where the United States is importing more food from foreign countries.

Iowa has also been making strides in improving accountability in public assistance programs to ensure that only those who truly need the help are getting the needed resources. The same should apply to food programs.

Federal funds come at a cost. States have become dependent on Uncle Sam and federal funds not only limit how states can respond to various policy problems, but it actually increases costs.

Reynolds is correct that states should have greater flexibility in administering programs such as food assistance. What may work in Iowa may not work in other states. “If the Biden Administration and Congress want to make a real commitment to family well-being, they should invest in already existing programs and infrastructure at the state level and give us the flexibility to tailor them to our state’s needs,” stated Gov. Reynolds

Chris Edwards, Kilts Family Chair in Fiscal Studies at the CATO Institute, argues that federal funds lead to “excessive spending, creates costly bureaucracy, reduces political accountability, stifles diversity, and undermines local democratic control.” Federal funds also interfere with state policy innovation because the regulations tied to the dollars reduce the amount of flexibility a legislature may have in addressing a policy problem. Federal mandates can be stifling for states.

Excessive spending has economic consequences, which is causing higher inflation. Inflation drives prices up and this is why individuals are struggling with higher food, gas prices, and less earnings and savings. Federal funds are not “free” money, that is, they are driven by federal taxes.

Will states be prepared when the federal government has to make drastic cuts in spending?

It will take time for states to slowly back away from relying on federal funds. For decades, the centralization of the federal government has undermined federalism. State policymakers need to start taking the issue of federal funds seriously. The national debt continues to escalate, and it is currently approaching $35 trillion. What happens when true austerity comes, and Uncle Sam can no longer be generous? Will states be prepared when the federal government has to make drastic cuts in spending?

Restoring federalism is also the right policy because it is constitutional. That may appear to be an obsolete idea to many, but the federal government needs a serious reformation. James Madison in Federalist 45 stated that “the powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined.” We have drifted from the Constitution and Uncle Sam was never intended to become a benevolent benefactor to the states.

It is unfortunate that Reynolds and other governors who have turned down the Summer EBT program dollars are being labeled as cold hearted. Reynolds is acting in the best interest of Iowa and ensuring that not only do existing programs continue to serve those in need but also protect the state from becoming too dependent on federal dollars. She is correct that relying on federal dollars is not sustainable.

The best policy solution, whether it is attempting to solve food insecurity or poverty, should not be driven by the federal government, but rather through state policy innovation. The lesson from the Great Society’s “War on Poverty” is that the federal government cannot spend poverty out of existence.

The combination of existing state-based, federal, and numerous private programs to address food security is strong in Iowa. Plus, Iowa as a leading agricultural producing state should not have to rely on new federal dollars to help resolve hunger. Iowa is sending tax dollars to the federal government, who then in turn create programs with rules and regulations, for Iowa to follow. The American constitutional system never intended for policy to work this way.

In Iowa, Reynolds, through pro-growth tax reforms, reforming and limiting government, and encouraging private sector growth is demonstrating to the nation how a sustainable policy agenda is working to create economic opportunities and it bolsters the culture of self-government most Iowans want.

John Hendrickson serves as policy director for Iowans for Tax Relief Foundation.

Authored by:John Hendrickson


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