The Food Stamp-Out

Yesterday, the House of Representatives voted to pass a farm bill—a bill that influences everything from your lovely weekend farmers market to the subsidies that have led every food in America to be made from corn—without what is normally its biggest component: nutrition programs, including food stamps. It introduces a new wrinkle into a two-year fight over the farm bill, a sleepy piece of legislation that must be passed every five years and is normally uncontroversial. Senate leadership, which passed a farm bill earlier in June, has said it won’t pass one without the food stamp portion. Senator Debbie Stabenow, the chair of the Senate agricultural committee, released a statement with a reminder of that yesterday: “The bill passed by the House today is not a real Farm Bill and is an insult to rural America, which is why it’s strongly opposed by more than 500 farm, food and conservation groups.”

The split came after a bit of a ruckus: Last month, House leadership brought the farm bill up for a vote and it failed to pass. No farm bill in recent memory has failed on the House floor, and the sticking point was the cuts made to the food stamp program. (It is known on the Hill by its acronym SNAP—Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—but everyone I’ve met who uses them still calls them food stamps.) The bill would have cut about $20 billion from food stamps over the bill’s five-year life by forcing states to use strict limits on eligibility for the program. Most Democrats wanted fewer cuts or none; some Republicans wanted even more. It was the second time the House had failed to pass a farm bill after the Senate passed one: The farm bill was supposed to be reauthorized last year but the 2008 farm bill was extended into this year after the House failed last time. Yesterday, Oklahoma Congressman Frank Lucas, chair of the House agricultural committee said, “I’m sick and tired of working on this bill.”

Food stamps make up about 80 percent of the farm bill’s budget, and it’s partly for this reason it became such a ripe target for deficit hawks. Though it still makes up only about 2 percent of the federal budget ($81 billion of a total $3.5 trillion in spending), the food stamp program has risen in cost by 70 percent since the last farm bill in 2008. The rise is a product of two big things. The biggest reason is that the Great Recession made more families eligible and a more minor reason is that the 1996 welfare reform law allows states to relax some of the strict federal rules on food stamp eligibility to be in line with their other anti-poverty programs, and more low-income families were taking advantage. (For example, many states allow families to have higher gross incomes than the federal limit of 130 percent of the poverty line—or a little more than $2,000 a month for a family of three—as long as certain costs like housing and childcare push them into poverty.)  The House bill would make the cuts to food stamps by getting rid of this flexibility, and would also cut bonus payments to states that do a good job getting food stamps to families that are eligible.

Patrick Woodall, of the watchdog group Food and Water Watch, called it a “historical meltdown.” The House is eventually going to have to pass the nutrition part if it wants to work with the Senate in conference, but what many advocacy groups fear is that the food stamp program will be even more vulnerable to cuts if it's separate from the farm bill. It’s why the two were joined in the first place. Food stamps began during the Lyndon Johnson administration, but it wasn’t up and running as a fully functioning nationwide program until 1974. It was added to the 1977 farm bill because, at the time, farmers were a waning constituency and poverty was perceived as an urban problem involving communities of color: Here was a bill that united a broad cross-section of America. Except that it didn’t yesterday. “The members of the Republican party that are fighting to get nutrition out of the farm bill are doing so because they don’t want to provide a safety net for lower-income Americans,” Woodall says. “The reality is that SNAP is the steadiest and the only reliable safety net for American families that lose their jobs, that are temporarily down on their luck, and it has been vital to ensuring that Americans do not go hungry and have significantly reduced food security.”

Rural and urban Americans have always had more in common than they like to think. Most of the food stamp money goes to cities, but that’s only because more people live in cities overall. A higher percentage of rural Americans rely on food stamps than do urban dwellers: 7.5 percent compared to 4.8 percent. Food stamp use increased during the Recession because they are an entitlement: anyone who is eligible gets them. Unlike other programs such as welfare and subsidies for childcare, states can’t cut their budgets in a time of rising need, so food stamps are one of the strongest safety nets in any downturn. In 2011-2012 report from the USDA, only about 8 percent of food stamp households received welfare benefits: most of the families who had an income get it from low-wage work. Many of the families getting benefits lived in extreme poverty, and most—about 83 percent—had gross incomes below the poverty line. Almost half—45 percent—of those who benefitted from food stamps are children. And the benefits families received helped raise some of them out of poverty. In short, food stamps do what they were intended to do, they’re beneficial to the whole economy because families spend them. There is no reason to cut the program.

Food stamps aren’t the only program whose fate is now in question, though. The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit watchdog that studies farm policy, has noted that the House bill actually increases by $9 billion the amount of money that goes to crop insurance subsidies for farmers who grow products like wheat, cotton, and corn. Most of the money goes to wealthy farmers. Moreover, the House bill raises price guarantees for these products and makes them permanent, instead of requiring them to be reauthorized every five years. Programs many of us enjoy but which have less powerful constituencies—like programs for organic farmers and programs that encourage farmers to conserve land—would continue to require reauthorization. But once they’re no longer joined with the subsidies the powerful farm lobby cares about, they would be less likely to pass. “All the other programs would simply expire,” says Scott Faber of Environmental Working Group. “This would have a far bigger impact on the future of farm policy than even splitting the nutrition part from the bill.”

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