Our grammarian governor plays politics with words

“Unsustainable” is a fascinating word, especially when it is used in government and politics. Merriam-Webster, the dictionary folks, tell us unsustainable means something cannot be continued or supported.

But in governmental affairs, that definition sometimes gets changed. Instead of something truly being incapable of continuing, the word often means the person using the term simply does not want that “something” to go forward.

Understanding this distinction can help us better parse the statements our politicians make. Here is a real-life example to illustrate this difference:

Back in December, Gov. Kim Reynolds ended Iowa’s participation in a summer food program for low-income families with school-age children. The governor made the decision even though the bulk of the expense would be paid by the federal government.

About 240,000 Iowa children from needy families are affected by her decision. Their parents would have received $40 per month during the summer for each child who qualifies for free or reduced-priced school lunches. The program’s purpose was to help these needy families feed their children during the summer when classes are not in session and the kids are not eating at school.

In Iowa, the federal government offered $29 million for food assistance this summer. State government would have been responsible for covering $2 million in administrative costs.

But in deciding to withdraw Iowa from the program, the governor explained her rationale: “Federal Covid-era cash benefit programs are not sustainable and don’t provide long-term solutions for the issues impacting children and families.” She also said the program “does nothing to promote nutrition at a time when childhood obesity has become an epidemic.”

Last week, the governor unveiled details of a new state grant program to feed needy Iowa kids during the summer months. A total of $900,000 in competitive grants is being offered to communities to expand the reach of two existing summer meal programs providing meals each week day through schools, churches, libraries and community organizations.

It is obvious the $900,000 in state grants will not feed as many children as the $29 million in federal summertime assistance would. The money for the grants is coming from the federal government, too.

State Representative Chuck Isenhart, a Dubuque Democrat, said the state meal programs Reynolds is expanding spent about $5.8 million last year and fed about 20,000 kids. The Reynolds grants will provide meals for an additional 1,800 kids, he estimated.

State Senator Sarah Trone Garriott, a West Des Moines Democrat, said in a statement last week, “The competitive grant program amounts to crumbs for Iowa kids. Gov. Reynolds could have accepted $29 million in federal food assistance that would’ve reached 240,000 children in every corner of the state. The $900,000 state program she announced … is tiny by comparison and forces Iowa communities to compete for a sliver of that much-smaller pie. It’s not enough to meet the real needs facing our state.”

The meal sites have inherent problems the summer food benefit cards do not. Families must bring their children to and from the meal sites every day in the summer, which is difficult for most working parents. And Isenhart reminded lawmakers 12 counties did not have a meal site last summer, and 21 other counties had only one summer meal site

The summer food program — which operates much like SNAP, the program formerly known as food stamps — was established during the Covid pandemic, when many families’ incomes fell because parents had their work hours reduced or they were laid off or lost their jobs. Now, although the pandemic is not the economic impediment it once was, the earnings of many families are not keeping up with inflation.

That is why the federal government is making the summer food program permanent, although it gave the states the option of dropping out. Iowa joined 12 other states in leaving the program. Nebraska first said it would drop out, too, but Gov. Jim Pillen, a Republican, ultimately gave in to public pressure and said Nebraska will remain in the federal program.

Back to Gov. Reynolds’ concerns about the federal summer food benefits being unsustainable:

The $2.2 million in administrative expenses Iowa state government would have to cover to participate in the federal food program is less than it will cost Reynolds to deploy Iowa State Patrol troopers and Iowa National Guard soldiers to the Texas border with Mexico this spring.

And the $29 million price tag for the summer food benefits program is significantly less than the $128 million Iowa state government is paying this year for tuition vouchers for students attending private K-12 schools. Two years from now, when the voucher program is fully implemented, the vouchers will cost the state treasury an estimated $345 million per year.

So, unsustainable really comes down to whether a government official supports or opposes that which supposedly cannot be sustained.

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Randy Evans can be reached at DMRevans2810@gmail.com

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