Our Opinion: A bitter pill
After more than two years of partisan squabbles, a $100-billion-per-year compromise farm bill passed in the U.S. House of Representatives by a vote of 251 to 166. In the end, 89 Democrats in the House voted for the bill and 66 Republicans voted against it. Pres. Barack Obama has indicated he will sign the bill if the Senate approves it as well, which it appears will happen.
The bill contains cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (also known as food stamps) but leaves intact most crop subsidies. The bill cuts about 1 percent, or $800 million a year, from the $80-billion-per year SNAP program. House Republicans were asking for a 5 percent cut. Last June, the House approved a farm bill with $4 billion in cuts, but the legislation never made it through the Senate, where Democrats wanted to limit the cuts to SNAP to $400 million.
While some political observers lauded the farm bill as a sign Congress may be on the path of learning to work together again, not everyone is happy that the bipartisan agreement is coming at the expense of those who can least afford it.
"In addition to the $9 billion in food stamp cuts in this five-year farm bill, another $11 billion will be slashed over three years as stimulus funding for the program expires," wrote Erika Eichelberger at Mother Jones. "And yet, despite the $5 billion in cuts that already happened and the guarantee of $6 billion more, Republicans succeeded in getting their Democratic peers to cut food stamps further. This is the first time in history that a Democratic Senate has even proposed cutting the program. Now the upper chamber is expected to pass cuts twice the level it approved last year."
What does this mean in real numbers? Last November when funding from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act ended, SNAP recipients lost nearly $30 dollars a month from their benefits. Now they could lose another $90 in benefits. Do we need to do the math for you?
"It's very difficult for those families in need and its really sad to see that budget issues and financial problems are being resolved at the expense of people who are missing one of the most basic of human needs and that's having enough food to eat," Linda Scheid, executive director of the Food Bank of Siouxland, told the Sioux Land News. "Think about giving up nearly $100 worth of benefits and that might be half of your food budget or more and knowing you don't have a way to replace it. It's not like... well we just will put less money into our rent payment or less money into our car payment or not put as much gas in the car. It's one of those situations that's critical."
In Vermont more than one in five children and nearly one in seven households are food insecure, leaving families to rely on federal and state programs such as SNAP (known as 3SquaresVT in the Green Mountain State), Woman, Infants and Children, and the federal school lunch and breakfast programs. Enrollment in 3SquaresVT has nearly tripled over the last decade, with more than 100,000 Vermonters now receiving benefits.
And, as Rick Cohen, writing for Non Profit Quarterly, noted "Increasingly, recipients of food stamps are no longer children and the elderly, but working-age people, many of them working in minimum wage, poverty level jobs. The working poor are now the face of the food stamp program. The positions of the various critics of the farm bill that passed the House reveal not just attitudes toward food stamps and ‘entitlement programs,' but the different approaches of political leaders toward overcoming the nation's stubbornly growing income inequality."
Even if we can swallow the bitter taste of the SNAP cuts, the fact the House left in other programs that stick in our craws is particularly nauseating.
While the bill eliminates a $4.5 billion-a-year farm subsidy called direct payments, which are paid to farmers whether they farm or not, it will continue to heavily subsidize major crops -- corn, soybeans, wheat, rice and cotton -- while shifting many of those subsidies toward more politically defensible insurance programs, noted the New York Times.
The bill includes a boost in money for crop insurance popular in the Midwest; higher rice and peanut subsidies for Southern farmers; and renewal of federal land payments for Western states, according to the New York Times.
"They also backed away from repealing a catfish program -- a move that would have angered Mississippi lawmakers -- and dropped language that would have thwarted a California law requiring all eggs sold in the state to come from hens living in larger cages," noted the New York Times.
"This bill is not perfect, and no bill is," admitted Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the most senior member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, who was able to negotiate a compromise guaranteeing lower premium rates for small dairy farms in Vermont and other states and substantially higher rates for the country's largest dairy farms. The farm bill also creates a new dairy product purchase program that would allow the Secretary of Agriculture to purchase dairy products for donation to food banks and other nonprofits that help low-income groups when margins (the difference between the cost of animal feed and farm milk prices) fall below a certain level.
"This is a huge and complicated bill which has some very positive provisions but also some negative ones," noted Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. "The good news is that this legislation provides support for family-based dairy farmers in Vermont and throughout the country. The bad news is that it makes harmful cuts in nutrition programs."
The bill also includes $100 million to help bring healthy food to underserved communities; initiatives to encourage purchases of fruits and vegetables by SNAP consumers at retail outlets, including farmers' markets and food hubs; support for food banks; allowing SNAP recipients to use their benefits to purchase a Community Supported Agriculture share; and a pilot program to support bringing local food into schools.
While we will admit there is abuse in the SNAP program, and people who don't need it, or could subsist on a lower benefit, should be identified, the farm bill, while it has admirable points, is just another example of Congress bending to the will of powerful interests at the expense of everyone else.
It's nice to know the Democrats and Republicans could be experiencing a renaissance of bi-partisanship, it's just too bad people will go hungry because of it.
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