Here in farm country, the politics of agriculture can mean the difference between profit and loss. Billions of dollars in subsidies to farmers are given out each year by Congress. Mandating ethanol mixed into gasoline raises the price of corn, and has led to the expansion of acreage in corn across the Midwest.
Millions of Americans who are not farmers also depend financially on farm legislation. Since 1973, every congressional farm bill has included the food stamp program, now called SNAP, run by the Department of Agriculture. That is, until last week, when Republicans in the House passed a farm bill with no food stamp program. Because of the economic crisis of the past few years, the number of people in poverty and receiving food stamps has grown from about 26 million in 2007 to 46.6 million in 2012. One in seven Americans needs that assistance so they don’t go hungry. Costs have risen from $30 billion to $75 billion.
Conservative Republicans have attacked the food stamp program for years. The budget that Paul Ryan proposed in 2012 as he ran for Vice President would have cut food stamps by about 20% for the next 10 years. This year he proposed that people with $2,000 in savings, or a car worth more than $5,000, be ineligible for food stamps. The Congressional Budget Office said that would eliminate nearly 2 million people, mostly low-income seniors and working families with children.
In June, House Republicans passed an amendment which would encourage states to drug test food stamp recipients. Although the SNAP program already has a normal requirement that recipients must look for and take jobs, an amendment from Steve Southerland (R-FL) would allow states to cut people from SNAP benefits if they are not now working 20 hours a week. Then state governments could keep half of the money saved and use it for any purpose. Every Republican but 6 voted for the Southerland amendment and every Democrat but one voted against it.
Republicans who don’t want to cut food stamps enough are targeted by conservative activists. In May, the Heritage Action Fund took out radio ads against three Republican members of the House for supporting a “food stamp bill”.
Which Americans receive food stamps? In 2011, of the 20.8 million households receiving food stamps, less than a third had any earned income. One-quarter of these households consisted of an elderly or a disabled person living alone, virtually all of whom had no earned income. One-sixth are unemployed single people living alone. The rest are mainly households with children, most of whom are headed by a single parent, and 13% of whom have no adult at all. That last group totals 1.3 million households of only children, about 2.6 million children. The average gross income per household is less than $9000 a year. Their total assets average $331.
What do they get? The average SNAP benefit is about $134 per month per person, a bit over $4 per day for food. That’s not enough to last a month: 90% of SNAP benefits are redeemed by the third week of the month.
The proponents of cutting food stamps argue that every program must be cut to deal with our national debt. But the House farm bill actually increases certain subsidies, to sugar for example, and cuts farm subsidies overall less than the bill that passed the Senate or than President Obama’s 2014 budget proposal. The vast majority of farm subsidies, averaging about $17 billion per year since 1995, are paid to huge farm operations and wealthy farmers: half of that money went to 4% of farmers at $820,000 per recipient; at the other end, 80% of recipients averaged only $9000, about 11% of the total.
For that reason, it has been criticized by conservative think tanks, like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, which says that farm subsidy programs “transfer tax payer dollars mainly to rich landowners and wealthy farmers”.
What about “government waste”? SNAP program administrative costs are only 5% of the total program, and fraudulent selling of benefits is estimated to be 1%. Only 4% of recipients are non-citizens, mostly documented immigrants and refugees.
Feeding America, whose nationwide network of food banks works to alleviate hunger, says “Our nation’s budget is a moral document.” Congressional Republicans say that reducing the national debt will save future generations from financial disaster. To do that, they are taking food off the table for today’s children. What kind of morality is that?
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, July 16, 2013