Calmes: The Republican Party promised to give new meaning to 'pro-life' after Dobbs. How's that working?

A worker organizes food at the West Alabama Food Bank in Northport, Alabama, U.S., on Monday March 28, 2022. Food banks and pantries across the U.S. are stretched so thin by soaring operating costs that they're having to ration what goes out to feed the nation's hungry. Photographer: Andi Rice/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A worker restocks shelves at the West Alabama Food Bank in Northport, Ala. Direct aid to families is a better way to fight hunger. (Bloomberg / via Getty Images)
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For the record:
7:40 p.m. March 4, 2024: Nebraska is cited in this column as one of 15 states refusing federal food aid. In fact, on Feb. 12, Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen had reversed his earlier decision to decline the aid.

It’s not yet spring, but think ahead to June. Kids will be out of school, and we'll mark the second anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, which ended guaranteed access to abortion nationwide.

Those two facts — kids on vacation and post-Dobbs realities — may seem unconnected. But there is a link, and it’s a sorry one. Let me explain.

First, a little on Dobbs. Births have increased in every state that rushed to ban most abortions after the justices’ green light. Republicans in those mostly red states told us not to worry because they had a new “pro-life” cause: They’d provide better healthcare, nutrition and other support for needy women forced to give birth and for their children.

“We must show that being pro-life is not just about being antiabortion,” Mississippi’s Gov. Tate Reeves said on national television.

And now about kids on school breaks: Children in poor households face what’s called a “summer hunger gap.” For roughly three months, they don’t get the free daily lunches they would receive at school, and their families can’t or don’t fill the void. So President Biden and Congress created a program to provide eligible children with $40 a month — $120 total — on debit cards that households can use to buy groceries. It starts in June and is the first new federal food program on this scale in nearly 50 years.

More than 30 million children could benefit. Yet about a third of them won’t. In 15 states, Republican governors have rejected the $2.5-billion program, though the only cost to their states would be paying half of the relatively small expense to administer the benefits.

Read more: 'It's hard to focus': Schools say American kids are hungry

Those governors’ decision leaves up to 10 million kids without access to the extra nourishment $40 a month could buy, at a time when hunger is rising, according to federal data. Meanwhile, many of those 15 governors are loudly blaming Biden for grocery prices that remain stubbornly high even as overall inflation has cooled.

As you can probably guess, nearly all 15 anti-free-lunchers are “pro-lifers” too, and seemingly unconcerned, like so many Republican politicians, that they are demonstrating that their convictions apply only up to a child’s birth. Hungry second-graders? Fuhgeddaboudit.

And nearly all also represent notoriously stingy states when it comes to assisting their poorest residents, especially women with children. The 15 are Alabama, Alaska, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Vermont and Wyoming.

Read more: Calmes: Republican states' worthless post-Roe pledges

Almost half — seven — rank among the dozen U.S. states with the highest percentages of children in poverty. Reeves’ Mississippi is No. 1, and Louisiana is second, with Alabama, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Georgia and Texas close behind. And seven — not exactly the same seven, but close — are among the 10 states that have refused to extend Medicaid eligibility to low-income individuals and families at mostly federal expense as the 2010 Affordable Care Act provides.

Several states among the summer-lunch naysayers — Nebraska, Texas, Georgia and Louisiana — have the highest rates of children facing food insecurity, according to the Agriculture Department. Roughly 1 out of 5 children in those states routinely aren’t getting sufficient, wholesome food. They're going hungry.

“I don’t believe in welfare,” said the governor of No. 1 Nebraska, Jim Pillen, explaining his decision to decline the feds’ program. When a bipartisan group of state lawmakers proposed to force the state to accept the $18 million in benefits, for about 150,000 kids, Pillen doubled down: “Handing out money is not enough to meet kid's [sic] needs,” he wrote. “They need much more. … A hand up, not a handout."

Read more: Iowa won't participate in U.S. food assistance program for kids this summer

Got it? Because the feds’ aid won’t fix all the problems poor kids have, Nebraska doesn't want a little lunch money. Pillen’s illogic reminds me of House Republicans’ nonsensical rejection of the Senate's bipartisan border legislation this month: It didn’t solve everything so they decided to do nothing. Let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds offered her own obnoxious take on the summer program when the state announced that it wouldn’t participate. It “does nothing to promote nutrition at a time when childhood obesity has become an epidemic,” she said.

Because of course you can’t trust anyone eligible for a government food program to be responsible enough to buy fruit, eggs, veggies and whole-grain breads.

Read more: 14 GOP-led states turn down federal money to feed low-income kids in the summer. Here's why

Reynolds and other governors noted that their states already have private food pantries and nonprofit groups that cater to the poor, so to speak. Never mind that those charities are chronically understocked and desperate for a local, state or federal hand.

Also, anti-hunger advocates have long pushed for what the program offers, a summer option that directly gets food aid to low-income families, so they don’t always have to go to sometimes-distant sites to get food and meals. One study showed that six out of seven needy children miss meals because distribution sites are hard to reach.

The feds are offering only a partial remedy for undernourishment, not a solution to hunger, to be sure. But state “leaders” who won’t accept it are failing their most vulnerable constituents.

And yet again, Republicans are making a mockery of their post-Dobbs promise to give “pro-life” a new meaning.


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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.