(Crystal A. Proxmire, July 15, 2013)
Subsidies for farmers and large-scale food producers continue, while food assistance is in danger of being cut for low income Americans thanks to the recently passed Farm Bill. On July 11 the House Farm Bill passed with a 216-208 vote, with every Democrat and a dozen Republicans voting no. Congress passed the Farm Bill by stripping it of any allocations to help feed hungry individuals, while giving $195 billion in farm subsidies over the next decade.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), said Republicans would “act with dispatch” to address the issue of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) funding, although various reports agree that Republicans have no clear path in mind. Ideas being floated around include limiting the amount of time one can receive assistance, increasing work requirements, and efforts to reduce fraud.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), House Budget Committee Chairman, has proposed cutting food stamps by $135 billion over ten years and converting the funding to a block grant model. Under a block grant model the SNAP program would “lose its ability to respond automatically to the increased need that results from rising poverty and unemployment during economic downturns. Annual federal funding would remain fixed, regardless of whether the economy was in a recession or how severe a downturn was,” according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP).
In January of 2013 the SNAP program provided assistance to 47,772,000 participants, or 1 in 7 people. In Michigan, 18% of the state’s population (1 in 6) relied on the program, with 1,785,000 Michigan residents taking part.
If the House and Senate fail to agree on a bill to fund SNAP, the programs would carry on without specific authorization, making it vulnerable to budget cuts. Reports vary as to what this could mean. A widely re-posted Associated Press article titled Fact Check: Farm Bill Doesn’t End Food Stamps, says “the lack of congressional action on food stamps could keep the $80 billion-a-year program untouched by any cuts.”
Yet a Mother Jones’ article states “That means the food stamp program would end up hanging around unauthorized (meaning it would continue to be funded at current levels through appropriations bills). That leaves the program vulnerable to other pieces of legislation, says Dottie Rosenbaum, an expert on food assistance at CBPP.”
Even before the SNAP funding was removed from the Farm Bill, organizations that work to feed the hungry and elected officials across the country spoke out against proposed cuts. Ferndale Mayor Dave Coulter and US Congressman Sander Levin were among those who took the Food Research and Action Center’s National SNAP Challenge last month, wherein they committed to eating off just $4.50 a day. This is the average amount of food assistance an individual gets from SNAP.
A shopping trip to Ferndale Foods showed the elected officials just how little food people get by on. “The week of eating on a food stamp budget was harder than I thought, and even harder to eat healthy options. Towards the end I had the feeling of both being hungry and not wanting to eat because I was tired of my choices. I ran out of things like bread and vegetables, but I did manage to have enough for the week,” Coulter said. Having a small budget meant giving up healthy, fresh produce and getting by on pasta, bread and oatmeal.
“I discovered that 20% of folks shopping at Ferndale Foods have a bridge card, so it’s incredibly important for people here locally and for the stores where they shop. Fortunately, as the economy improves the number of people using the cards in Ferndale is decreasing, just as the program was designed. But for folks still struggling, food aid is a lifeline to keep from starving.” Nationwide the SNAP program has doubled in costs over the last five years, up to $78 billion annually, with more people falling into financial need.
Though Coulter had been anticipating cuts, the idea of separating out SNAP benefits from the Farm Bill was shocking. “The House should be ashamed of the bill they just passed, which didn’t include any funds for SNAP because they couldn’t cut food aid deep enough to satisfy the most conservative members,” Coulter said. “These folks should try what Congressman Levin and I did and see what it’s like to live with the results of their misguided ideas about what food aid does. But I still believe we’re better than that as a country, and I’m hopeful we will get a reasonable farm bill in the end.”
US Senator Debbie Stabenow, who led the effort for a bipartisan Farm Bill in the Senate was also shocked. “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. We will go to conference with the bipartisan, comprehensive Farm Bill that was passed in the Senate that not only reforms programs, supports families in need and creates agriculture jobs, but also saves billions more than the extremely flawed House bill,” she said in a statement.
The next step is for the House and the Senate to work on a compromise between the bills each passed before sending a final bill to the White House. President Barack Obama has already said he would veto a bill that did not include SNAP funding, and Senator Stabenow is against it. “”We could not pass that through the Senate, nor would the president sign that kind of bill,” she said, according to a report by Reuters.
If a compromise cannot be made by Sept. 30, policy would revert back to a 1940s set of rules called “permanent law.” This would unravel programs instituted since that time, such as soybean subsidies and environmental protections. An analysis by Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy explains that milk prices could triple, the US government would be forced to over-pay for wheat, and food prices in general would go up as producers adjust to the changes.
To learn more about the Farm Bill, visit http://frac.org/farm-bill-faq/. Read our previous Farm Bill story at https://oaklandcounty115.com/2013/06/11/mayor-and-congressman-getting-a-taste-of-poverty-video/.