Heard on the Hill

One congressman’s lonely quest to defund hobo festivities

Rep. Ralph Norman’s efforts have thus far met with little success

South Carolina Rep. Ralph Norman wants to prohibit federal funding for Hobo Day. Above, South Dakota State University broke out the banjos and makeup in 2014. (YouTube screenshot)

Rep. Ralph Norman is determined to put a stop, once and for all, to government funding for celebrations of hobos and hobo-related activity.

Earlier this month, the South Carolina Republican filed an amendment to an appropriations package that would prohibit a certain type of federal funding “to any school to celebrate Hobo Day,” which raises an obvious question: Is there a scourge of government-funded hobo bacchanalias?

Not exactly. In 2018, Norman introduced a bill identifying a lone culprit, South Dakota State University. “Not only is this celebration derogatory and negatively stereotypical, but it’s absolutely wasteful — plain and simple,” he said in a release announcing the bill, which attracted no co-sponsors.

Well, what exactly is Hobo Day? It dates to 1907, when a bunch of students at the school decided to go outside wearing only nightshirts and sheets to try to drum up school spirit. A few years later, someone had the idea to brand it as a hobo-themed event and the name stuck. It has since evolved into a week-long celebration complete with a Hobolympics, a Mr. and Ms. Homelycoming pageant, and construction of a cardboard shantytown. There’s also a BumFire. It culminates in a parade through the town of Brookings.

Norman’s efforts in Congress have thus far met with little success, and for good reason. First, the amendment filed in June, which did not get a vote, misidentifies the entity awarding the grant as the “National Endowment of the Arts” (it’s “for,” not “of,” though his 2018 bill uses the correct preposition). Second, an online search of grants awarded by the NEA dating back to 1998 finds no awards for Hobo Day. A spokeswoman with the NEA says that the agency has never provided funding for Hobo Day.

There was a 2016 grant awarded to the school, totaling $11,987, the figure identified by Norman as coming from the NEA. But it turns out the grant came from the National Endowment for the Humanities, a separate agency from the NEA. The grant was used in part to digitally archive historic artifacts related to Hobo Day. So, in short, Norman’s legislation blocks the school from receiving funding from an entity it has never gotten money from.

One possible source for the error is a watchdog group called OpenTheBooks.com, which in a 2017 report misidentified the NEA as the source of the funding.

Austin Livingston, a spokesman for Norman, acknowledged the screw-up but said the drafting of the bill was done by a former staffer, so he couldn’t be sure if OpenTheBooks.com had provided the information. There are no plans to reintroduce the measure, he said. “It is, essentially, not going anywhere.” 

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