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Nebraska is only state not continuing emergency supplemental food assistance during pandemic

Nebraska is only state not continuing emergency supplemental food assistance during pandemic

LINCOLN — Jobless workers and struggling families in Nebraska are having to make do without two federally funded coronavirus relief programs.

Nebraska is one of two states that have not yet opted to give unemployed workers an extra $300 a week in federal unemployment aid. The other state, South Dakota, has refused the money.

Gov. Pete Ricketts said officials are reviewing President Donald Trump’s executive order that made the money available to states.

In addition, Nebraska is the only state not to continue emergency supplemental food assistance beyond July.

State Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln said the situation sends a message to unemployed Nebraskans “that their state is not doing the bare minimum to ensure their family does not go hungry.”

“Call the Governor’s office and ask him why he is letting folks go hungry and forgoing essential relief during a global pandemic,” he urged on Twitter.

The message was clear for one Nebraska woman, who gets by on $850 a month in disability benefits. She said the emergency supplemental food assistance made a big difference in her health for the months it was offered.

“My governor does not care about me,” she said of the decision not to continue the supplemental food aid.

The woman spoke on the condition that she not be identified because she lives in a rural area and is concerned about the reaction of neighbors. Normally, she said, she gets $16 a month of food assistance through the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. The supplemental assistance bumped that up to $194 a month.

The extra assistance that Nebraska offered for March through July helped her lose weight and reduce her blood pressure because it made it possible for her to buy fruits and vegetables, she said.

“I sat there and cried because I was eating a lettuce salad and it was such a treat,” she said.

A federal coronavirus relief bill allowed states to boost SNAP benefits to the maximum level for all recipients. Nebraska did so for March through July but did not join the other 49 states in offering the additional aid for August. Thirteen states, including Iowa, already have applied to continue through September.

Ricketts’ spokesman referred questions about the additional food assistance to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.

Khalilah LeGrand, an HHS spokeswoman, explained the state’s decision by saying the supplemental assistance was a temporary means to help Nebraskans who lost work because of the pandemic. The number of people needing help has declined as social distancing restrictions were eased and more people were able to go back to work.

“State programs will continue to return to their typical operations as we continue to return to a greater place of normalcy and work to get Nebraska growing,” she said. “We encourage all residents who can and are able to get back to work to do so.”

LeGrand noted earlier that about 40% of SNAP households already receive the maximum level of benefits and that “eligible individuals can still apply for unemployment benefits.”

“We remain optimistic in that many families are returning back to work and parts of their lives as they knew it prior to the pandemic,” she said.

Nebraska officials have not answered questions about how and when they will make a decision on providing the $300 additional unemployment checks for people who lost their jobs or had their hours cut because of the pandemic.

A Trump executive order, signed Aug. 8, authorized the additional payments. States have until Sept. 10 to apply, but 48 had already applied, been approved or announced plans to apply as of the end of August. Payments have started going out in some states.

States can increase the payments to $400 a week by adding in state funds, but most have opted to stay with the federal-only payments.

The $300 benefit partially replaces the $600 a week payments provided under federal coronavirus relief legislation. Those payments ended July 25. The new benefit would be retroactive to Aug. 1.

Trump’s order draws from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster relief fund to pay for the additional federal unemployment benefits. Under his order, the program would expire on Dec. 27 at the latest. But it could end by mid-September if its cost reaches $44 billion or if the amount left in the disaster fund drops to $25 billion.

James Goddard of Nebraska Appleseed said Nebraska’s position on the two programs is part of a history of delaying and refusing federal support for people who are struggling. The state, for example, is taking longer to implement its Medicaid expansion program than any other state.

“I’m seeing a pattern here of foot dragging that’s pretty hard to defend,” he said.

World-Herald staff writer Paul Hammel contributed to this report.

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Martha Stoddard keeps legislators honest from The World-Herald's Lincoln bureau, where she covers news from the State Capitol. Follow her on Twitter @StoddardOWH. Phone: 402-670-2402

Reporter - Regional/state issues

Paul covers state government and affiliated issues. He specializes in tax and transportation issues, following the governor and the state prison system. Follow him on Twitter @PaulHammelOWH. Phone: 402-473-9584.

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