Of all the things to worry about

I don’t write many posts in the “wacky and mean-spirited things conservative say” genre, but I’m making an exception today.

On May 12, the two Republicans running for Congress in Iowa’s new first district, Rod Blum and Ben Lange, appeared at a candidate forum in Grinnell. When it was time for Q and A, State Representative Betty De Boef asked the first question. Kathie Obradovich paraphrased it as follows:

DeBoef is concerned about free school breakfast and lunch now available all summer. Blum says he’s for personal responsibility.

The comment caught my eye. Of all the things for a politician to be worried about, De Boef is concerned about kids getting free meals when school is not in session?

Since I didn’t attend the forum and wasn’t reading a verbatim transcript, I thought perhaps I misunderstood De Boef’s meaning. So I called her at home later on May 12 to clarify the nature of her concern. Was she worried that there wouldn’t be adequate resources to provide meals to children in need? Or was she against schools providing this service during the summer?

De Boef took my phone call and confirmed that she is against free school meals during the summer on principle. “What’s next?” she asked rhetorically. “Are we going to give them a bath and put them to bed?” She went on to say that “we need families that are responsible for children,” not a “nanny state.” With the huge federal deficit, she finds this kind of program “unsustainable.”

I asked De Boef where that leaves the children whose families are unable to provide enough food to eat during the summer. She responded, “I’m saying, if government is willing to take over for children, the parents will let them do it, and then we have socialism.”

That’s quite a leap, from free meals at school to socialism. The federal school lunch program has expanded quite a bit since the National School Lunch Act was adopted in 1946. Currently,

Students are entitled to free lunches if their families’ incomes are below 130 percent of the annual income poverty level guideline established by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and updated annually by the Census Bureau ($29,055 for a family of four in 2011). Children who are members of households receiving food stamp benefits or cash assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant, as well as homeless, runaway, and migrant children, also qualify for free meals.

The school lunch program reaches millions of needy children and consumes far less than 1 percent of the approximately $3.8 trillion in annual federal spending.

In fiscal year 2011, 70.4 percent of federal school lunch funds financed school lunches and snacks, while 21.2 percent financed school breakfasts, 8.3 percent financed optional commodities, and less than one percent financed school milk programs. The National School Lunch Program is the second largest nutritional assistance program in the nation after the Food Stamp program. […]

From 1977 to 2011, total federal expenditures on the National School Lunch Program increased from $6.6 billion to nearly $14.4 billion annually.3 Over the same period of time, participation in the meal programs increased by 5.5 million from 26.2 million to 31.7 million students. School lunch – and to a certain extent, breakfast – spending has primarily driven the expenditure increases due to a higher number of students enrolled in fully subsidized meal programs.

Free meals during the summer don’t reach nearly as many children as the school lunch program serves during the academic year.

July 2010 Participation:

* an average of 2.8 million children participated each weekday in the Summer Nutrition Programs.

* 15 children received Summer Nutrition for every 100 low-income students who received lunch in the 2009-2010 school year.

* only one in seven low-income children who ate a school lunch during the regular 2009-2010 school year were reached by the Summer Nutrition Programs.

I didn’t initially plan to write this post, because in general I don’t find off-base right-wing statements to be newsworthy. But ten days after the fact, De Boef’s comments are still bugging me. She could have asked about any aspect of federal government policy during that Congressional candidates’ forum, but she chose to criticize efforts to make sure kids don’t go hungry in the summer.

A recent report by the Center for Rural Affairs demonstrates that food insecurity is increasing more rapidly in rural areas than in metropolitan areas.

The full report on “Poverty in the Great Plains” is here (pdf).

Food Insecurity is defined as USDA’s measure of lack of access, at times, to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members or limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods. A food insecure household may not experience insecurity throughout the year. Any time one has to make a choice between adequate food and other expenses, such as medical bills, a household is considered to be food insecure.

The 2010 census indicated that in the poverty rate in rural Iowa counties (with a population center of less than 10,000 inhabitants) was 11.3 percent. The poverty rate in “micropolitan” Iowa counties (“based around a core city or town with a population of 10,000 to 49,999”) was 13.1 percent. The poverty rate in Iowa metropolitan counties was 12.2 percent. (Click here for a list of metropolitan and micropolitan areas in Iowa.)

The Center for Rural Affairs report indicates that food insecurity is becoming a bigger problem in rural Iowa than in large cities. Table B of the new report shows that 34.6 percent of children in rural Iowa counties are food insecure, compared to 20.4 percent of children in micropolitan counties and 16.6 percent of children in metropolitan counties.

Rural legislators like De Boef should be concerned that children in their constituents’ families may not be getting enough food to eat. Instead, De Boef is angry that some schools are stepping in to fill the gap. It blows my mind that self-styled “values conservatives” can become angry about a program designed to feed children. Ideally, parents would provide for all their children’s needs, but that’s not how the real world works.

I don’t mean to suggest that De Boef speaks for all Iowa Republicans. She’s not a particularly influential politician. On the contrary, she was one of only four experienced GOP state representatives who were passed over for committee chairmanships after Republicans regained the Iowa House majority. GOP leaders dismissed efforts by De Boef and four other House Republicans to file articles of impeachment against Iowa Supreme Court justices who concurred in the 2009 Varnum v Brien ruling.

Still, I find it disturbing that any elected official would demonize the school lunch program as leading us down the road to “socialism.” Judging from Obradovich’s twitter coverage of the forum in Grinnell, Blum responded to De Boef by saying that he was for “personal responsibility.” Although we should help people who are “starving,” we also “need to make people work.” Blum is worried that we are becoming “a nation of victims.”

Blum may not realize that the federal assistance commonly known as “food stamps” doesn’t go to many non-working households.

A large and growing share of SNAP households are working households (see chart). In 2010, more than three times as many SNAP households worked as relied solely on welfare benefits for their income.

The share of SNAP households with earnings has continued growing in the past few years – albeit at a slower pace – despite the large increase in unemployment.

One reason why SNAP is serving more working families is that, for a growing share of the nation’s workers, having a job has not been enough to keep them out of poverty.

Blum did not respond to my request for further clarity on his position regarding free school lunches for kids during the summertime or the academic year.

Share any relevant thoughts in this thread.

UPDATE: I should have mentioned that De Boef is retiring from the legislature this year. The redistricting plan threw her into the new Iowa House district 78 with fellow Republican Jarad Klein.

I recommend reading a report issued earlier this year on the so-called “entitlement society” myth. More than 90 percent of entitlement benefit spending goes to the elderly, disabled, or working households. The analysis included the following programs as entitlement benefit spending:

Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, SNAP (formerly known as the Food Stamp Program), SSI, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the school lunch program, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), the Earned Income Tax Credit, and the refundable component of the Child Tax Credit.

Click here to read the full report.

About the Author(s)


  • I have a difficult time believing

    she wants the children to starve or go without.

    Her angle is probably all about the government taking on the role of parent. If pressed for a more realistic solution, I imagine she might say that if the householder is unable to provide, then neighbors -> community kick in.  

    • BDB

      You’re giving BdB too much credit.  As noted in the post, she is not well regarded, even by members of her own caucus.  She is one of those legislators (from both parties) who are frankly just not very bright and sometimes mean spirited.  While the more intelligent of our populace (of all political stripe) go about their lives and careers in medicine, law, education, business etc and ignore public service in the process, the BdBs of the world fill the vaccuum and are left to set public policy.  Sad.  

      • ok,

        she simply wants children to go hungry.

        • flattered, but

          save the 4’s — I don’t really think that “she’s a big, old meanie” explains her position.

          What puzzles me is that these programs, year-round, also serve as a guaranteed market for agricultural surplus, which should be a plus in any Iowa legislator’s book.

          Blum’s “personal responsibility” struck me as a knee-jerk response to an ideological litmus test until I remembered that the 1996 welfare reform was called “Personal Responsibility & Work Opportunity Act of 1996” and eliminated start-up funds for the School Breakfast Program and Summer Food Service Program. I think some of the money was allocated in subsequent bills during the Clinton administration.

          More memories from the 90s — Tom Harkin came out in favor of a balanced budget amendment (after being against it) in 1995, before re-election and voted for it in 1997.

          The most compelling point in this post

          It blows my mind that self-styled “values conservatives” can become angry about a program designed to feed children. Ideally, parents would provide for all their children’s needs, but that’s not how the real world works.

          but we know that the BBA (and associated spending cuts) is politically popular across the US and especially so in Iowa. It isn’t that hard to see why Braley and Loebsack are on board — it’s a clear signal that their districts favor such measures. And I don’t see the argument that a particular politician is some sort of outlier in her party or even across both parties when it was these very programs that were cut in a bipartisan fashion under a Democratic administration.

          There are any number of bad ideas on the table in the name of saving money, like OTC blood pressure medicine:

          Although the FDA’s goal is to reduce health care costs by improving access to treatments, remember that both public and private insurers are not likely to cover these treatments if a prescription isn’t involved. Insurance companies typically rely on a doctor’s authorization to document medical necessity. This is another way the FDA plan could backfire, as patients might not be able to afford the out-of-pocket expense and could even go without treatment altogether.

          Just in time for health insurance reform.

          BDB lived through the Cold War era and all of its propaganda. Often contemporary conservative reaction, especially when it comes to govt influence on children in schools comes across as a distant echo. OTOH, I’m willing to believe that it’s a smokescreen for “sh*t rolls downhill,” but I just don’t see that this legislator, respected or not, as acting alone or somehow non-representative of the bipartisan cowardice in taking the easiest road: sacrifice for the most vulnerable.  

          • Harkin's not above political pandering

            though I had forgotten about his balanced budget amendment support in the 1990s. Sad.

            I’m not defending any cuts to any programs serving vulnerable people under Clinton or Obama. I’ve said repeatedly at this blog that I oppose cuts to domestic discretionary spending in the name of austerity.

            But if you are claiming that Democrats and Republicans are equally likely to slash funding for hungry kids, I do not agree. Democrats (at least some of them) generally lobby for higher levels of food assistance funding than Republicans are willing to support. Increased funding for SNAP (food stamps) was one of the most successful parts of the stimulus bill.

            This year, Iowa Democrats pushed for state funding to support emergency food bank purchases. The bill died in the Republican-controlled House Ways and Means Committee. Democrats resurrected a smaller appropriation in the health and human services budget for this purpose, which Branstad line-item vetoed on the grounds that “private donations” should support food banks.

            A more detailed post is in progress on the food bank money. My point is that De Boef is an extreme example of how Republicans are insensitive to the need for government action to combat hunger. She may not consciously want anyone to starve, but she lives in a fantasy world whereby all parents would step up and feed their kids adequately if government didn’t encroach on their role.

            • nope

              But if you are claiming that Democrats and Republicans are equally likely to slash funding for hungry kids

              Agree that De Boef is an extreme example, or better yet, least likely to cloak her views. My view is that she’s a bit more mainstream than we’d want to admit. I doubt she sees herself as harsh or neglectful when it comes to children & hunger (which is why I asked for clarification).

              If anything, I see it as uniquely American to silo oneself as part of “family” or “community” and then seek to reform the peripheral “fraud, waste and abuse” — outsiders, freeloaders, etc. This is just as much the politics of the American suburb as it is rural.

              HCR is a good example. It has been specifically marketed based on “personal stories,” people in your orbit who benefit. They don’t even care if the story is true or not, it’s the story that’s important. Those of us uneasy with the underlying policy have been assigned the roles of de facto “Betty De Boefs.” Along with “fraud, waste and abuse” we already hear a lot about “lifestyle choices.” Take hypertension as an example. It is

              the most common primary diagnosis assigned during outpatient visits in the United States with over 35 million office visits to medical clinics annually (Cherry and Woodwell, 2002).

              with a strong hereditary component as well as environmental factors. I find it equally problematic to look here for health care “savings,” and it is not a demographically neutral issue, but it will roll out like welfare reform: we are weeding out the chronic abusers.

    • both/and

      The first thing she said to me was a complaint about schools stepping in to fill what should be a parental role. She quickly commented on the “huge” federal deficit and how this kind of spending is “unsustainable.”

      Agree with you that she probably thinks neighbors and community should step in to feed hungry people. She is ignorant and has no idea that private charitable efforts are insufficient to meet these needs.  

      • agree

        on the ignorance and the efficacy (or lack thereof) of compassionate conservatism. There are examples in Iowa of very small communities that are able to meet their own needs, but they are not representative. I thought Culver was very unfairly judged on I-JOBS; there are more than a few towns out there with funding for libraries, community centers, etc.

  • More like this

    Not more posts on Republican outrage, but more posts where you go after the story yourself via phone calls.  

    Your platform is well established, your fairness is unquestioned, your tone is always respectful. Everyone should take your call.