OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Gov. Pete Ricketts doubled down Thursday on his decision to leave Nebraska as the only state that has discontinued emergency food assistance benefits that were made available under the federal coronavirus relief package, despite pleas from advocates for the poor.
Ricketts argued that Nebraska’s economy has fared far better than others hit by the coronavirus, and that other forms of assistance are still available to those who need it.
His comments came after advocates for low-income Nebraskans called on the Republican governor to reinstate the emergency aid, which ended in July. A group of state lawmakers has made a similar request.
“Our friends, our family members, and our neighbors are being told they should face an unprecedented global pandemic without emergency support for which they are eligible,” said Eric Savaino, who works on food-access issues for the advocacy group Nebraska Appleseed.
The Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, was temporarily expanded during the pandemic to help low-income Americans who took a financial hit due to the coronavirus and subsequent business closures and layoffs. SNAP benefits are financed by the federal government, with the state covering half of the administrative costs.
“The reality for thousands of Nebraska families who are still in crisis, disabled, or working but at reduced hours or at lower paying jobs, is that these benefits were essential and are still sorely needed,” Savaino said.
Advocates said they've heard from hundreds of Nebraska residents who relied on the additional aid to pay for food during the pandemic. The Food Bank of the Heartland, based in Omaha, reported a 40% increase in calls to its hotline since March.
"The SNAP program reaches across communities, urban, suburban and rural, to improve access to healthy food for families in need," said Shelley Mann, an assistant director at the food bank. “Neither the charitable food system, nor SNAP can do it alone.”
Ricketts argued that the extra assistance isn't needed because Nebraska had the nation's lowest unemployment rate as of last month. The state's unemployment rate was 4% in August, compared to 8.4% nationally, and the current numbers are comparable to Nebraska's jobless rates before the pandemic.
He said Nebraska's economy also took a small hit relative to other states, based on federal data. Nebraska's gross domestic product shrank 1.2% in the first three months of 2020, a smaller decrease than any other state, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.
Additionally, Ricketts said that the number of applications for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program has returned to normal levels after a sudden increase. Nebraska had roughly 70,000 people enrolled in the program in February, and the number rose to a high of 78,000 during the pandemic. It has since dropped to around 71,000.
“Here in Nebraska, being the least impacted the state, we have a way to show the rest of the country how to get back to normal,” Ricketts said at a news conference on an unrelated issue.
A group of 20 state lawmakers sent a letter to Ricketts earlier this month, asking that he extend the emergency benefits. The effort was led by state Sen. John McCollister, a Republican in the officially nonpartisan Legislature who his often at odds with his party.
“Nebraska should not withhold this life-sustaining aid to those residents who remain food insecure,” the senators wrote in the letter.
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