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Editorial: The failure of the farm bill

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | FEBRUARY 05, 2014 5:00 AM

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The Senate voted 68-32 on Tuesday to approve a new farm bill that will allocate nearly $1 trillion in tax dollars over the next 10 years.

The bill, which passed the House handily last week and comes after a few years of partisan fighting in Congress, includes renewed agricultural subsidies, expanded crop-insurance programs, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps, colloquially).

It is a good thing that lawmakers have managed to pass a much-delayed but very necessary new farm bill, though the concessions made to conservatives — mainly in the form of cuts to food stamps — are disappointing. While some will undoubtedly be outraged by the many bizarre details of the bill — taxes on Christmas trees and pay for catfish inspectors, perhaps — we believe the skewed priorities on display in the farm bill are far more outrageous.

The new farm bill will cut about $800 million annually from SNAP, which makes up about 80 percent of the farm-bill spending. In total, SNAP costs approximately $80 billion per year, up from only $20 billion per year a decade ago. It seems to be an easy target for cost-cutting and political grandstanding, but cuts to food stamps are more problematic than they may appear. 

According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, around half of all SNAP beneficiaries were children in 2011. On top of that, four-fifths of households receiving food stamps had a member who was elderly or disabled, and only 17 percent of households had incomes above the federal poverty line. It’s not as though the recent growth in the program was spurred by the government beginning to feed those who don’t need help.

It is the current size of the food-stamp program — not the pared-down version of a decade ago — that more closely matches the problem of hunger and food instability in the United States. Massive growth over the past decade does not justify cuts in the next decade.

Granted, the plan adopted by Congress is not nearly as draconian as the proposal offered by the House Republicans last year, which would have cut about $40 billion from food stamps over a decade, but the rationale behind any cost reductions remains suspect, particularly as the federal budget deficit has shrunk substantially.

Just Tuesday, the Congressional Budget Office projected that budget-deficit estimate for fiscal 2014 will fall to $514 billion, down from $680 billion in fiscal 2013. Clearly, the short-term budget outlook has improved enough to make cuts to valuable social programs less than essential, to say the least.

The cuts to food stamps are made more galling by the deference Congress pays to corporate subsidies as it cuts SNAP. The U.S. Public Interest Research Groups found that three-quarters of the farm subsidies provided for in the last farm bill went to approximately 4 percent of the agribusiness sector, including massive food companies such as Tyson’s Food.

The new farm bill contains billions of dollars’ worth of such corporate subsidies. One $200-million-a-year program called the Market Access Program provides big companies such as McDonald’s with money to promote and advertise its products, for example.

The priorities of our lawmakers are clear: We have the money to keep corporate subsidies in place, but simply can’t find the funds to keep SNAP at its current level.


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