Hey, Taxpayers…Got Food?

Last year when the nation was in the throes of discussions about the ‘Fiscal Cliff‘ which then segued into budget sequestration, the not so aptly named Farm Bill was yet another political hurdle to overcome.

Let’s refresh your memory about the actions of the 112th Congress and what the Farm Bill contains:

Remember when our incredibly ineffective, lazy and divisive Congress allowed the Farm Bill to expire? The current farm bill, known as the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008, replaces the last farm bill which expired in September 2007. Staying true to their record of accomplishing little, the 112th Congress managed to let the Farm Bill lapse and they haven’t been able to agree on provisions, clauses or requirements of a new bill. The bill had protections built in for farmers but several of those have already reached their date of expiration. Over the next few months one crucial protection that affects American consumers directly will expire: on January 1, 2013, the dairy subsidy expires. Once again congressional inactivity and/or obstruction is at play.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has stated that, ”If you like anything made with milk, you’re going to be impacted by the fact that there’s no farm bill.”  Vilsack further stated that ”Consumers are going to be a bit shocked when instead of seeing $3.60 a gallon for milk, they see $7 a gallon for milk. And that’s going to ripple throughout all of the commodities if this thing goes on for an extended period of time.” So in other words, we’re facing a ‘dairy cliff‘; it’s the agricultural industry equivalent of the fiscal cliff…a completely avoidable event.

When Congress passed the five-year Farm Bill in 2008 that funded various agricultural programs, including food stamps and farm subsidies, the expectation was that the Senate would pass a 10-year bill (that reached over $969 billion) this past June. Once again, the House of Representatives hasn’t yet done its job. Why? Because House Republicans continue to disagree about not whether to but by how  will they be able to gut nutrition programs and food stamps (to the tune of $16 billion) over the course of the next five years. If Congress allows the program to expire on January 1st: “Under permanent law (the 1949 bill), government-supported prices would be about four times higher than current law and about twice as high as current market prices.”

Fast forward to this year and now — not that more can or should be expected of the 113th Congress as the bill makes it way through the legislative process…

food stampsMany more citizens than in the nation’s recent history are suffering what is now called “food insecurity” — because words such as ‘poverty‘ aren’t a complete enough description of the misery caused by lingering economic woes. When many think of subsidies provided through a ‘farm bill’, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — “food stamps” –are not the first thing that comes to mind.

Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS), the top Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, has called the Senate’s farm bill a “job creator,” and he recently noted that including food stamps in the overall bill “helps get the farm bill passed.” But here’s the thing: the proposed Senate bill would cut approximately 0.5 percent, or $400 million a year, from the SNAP program, not aid to big corporate farmers.  Funny how those in dire straits who need food stamps are most affected, but spending on SNAP is one of several reasons that  the “farm bill” wasn’t passed last year.

There are conditions, of course. House bill would cut a little more than 3 percent, or about $2 billion a year, and also change the way people qualify for the program, but those qualification changes are not always need based. We’ve noted here on this site that, “Yes, SNAP is costly as a whole, but you wouldn’t want to have to frequently prove penury to qualify for it. The program has many rules, but internal controls can always be improved. Common sense improvements for our nutritional assistance programs can save taxpayer dollars without publicly rubbing the least fortunate families’ noses in the dirt.

Currently, the House legislation proposes to achieve some cuts by partially eliminating  ’categorical eligibility’, i.e., automatically giving SNAP benefits when other benefits programs are given. Both bills also would save dollars by ending a practice in some states of giving low-income people as little as $1 dollar a year in home heating assistance, even when they don’t have heating bills, in order to make them eligible for increased food stamp benefits.

Bottom line? Adjustments can be made. Fix the system; put operational effectiveness measures in place so that waste is eliminated — but don’t penalise the low-income people who are desperately in need of the service while simultaneously subsidising large-scale farm operations. The House measure  – not surprisingly — is more stringent than the Senate bill, including more than $20 billion in cuts to nutrition programs. Consider separating out the “farms” instead of including greater support for southern crops such as rice, cotton and peanuts, from the SNAP program funding so that real evaluations on the program’s performance and the need of recipients can be properly assessed; placing school lunch programs and the food life line for mothers with children in the same funding category as big agriculture wreaks of unfairness and government inefficiency at its best and political mean-spiritedness at its worst.