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The US Farm Bill is a Corporate Victory and a Slap to Struggling Americans
The US Congress wants to deny 2 million people food stamps, while hardly denting large agribusinesses
The cost of providing poor Americans with food stamps has doubled in the past four years, reflecting the fact that a record 47.8 million people are struggling to feed themselves and their families. The US Congress has an answer to the growth in poverty: force more people to struggle.
This glib response to a national crisis will be tested in the farm bill that passed the US Senate on Monday and will be up for debate in the House soon. Even though it's called "the farm bill," it's actually the legislation that primarily funds the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – better known as food stamps.
The Senate version would cut food stamps by $400m a year, adding up to $4bn over the decade covered by the bill. The House version, up for bitter debate starting next week, promises to cut even more: $20bn, mostly as a sop to conservative lawmakers who killed the bill last year because of what they considered a measly $16bn in cuts. At the current size, the House bill would deny 2 million people with low incomes access to food stamps, Reuters said.
By cutting the food stamp program, lawmakers are trying to make room or trade political points for what they really have to do, which is cut wasteful and ineffective subsidies to wealthy farmers that favor factory farming and disadvantage small farmers who make less than $250,000 a year. By the way, some of those wealthy farmers benefitting from subsidies in the farm bill are, very conveniently, also members of Congress.
And before you start believing this is an issue just concerning "the poor," remember that poverty has increasingly affected the middle class, too. Food stamps were initially created to help feed working families. Even now, a man or woman working full-time at minimum wage is making only $15,000 a year – a salary so low that it is eligible for food stamps. Not only do 14% of Americans live in poverty, but in some suburbs, food stamp use has doubled or even tripled. CNN Money told the story of one New Jersey suburb, Morris County, where food stamp use had grown by 240% by 2012. Then, of course, there is the unemployment crisis as 12 million Americans remain unemployed, about 40% of them for long-term periods longer than 6 months.
It should be clear to members of Congress that improving the financial lot of Americans is more important than any other task at hand, as well as a task they have consistently failed to accomplish. Yet legislators keep blowing their chances to do anything constructive, leading even Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke to chide fussbudget lawmakers for their counterproductive waste of time on cutting pie-in-the-sky estimates of deficits.
So, in response to this very real, very pressing, very immediate crisis, Congress is creating a particularly grotesque imitation of economic stimulus. Congress is not providing any alternatives to struggling families as it cuts the food stamp program, it is just slashing the cost and hoping that poverty – and its siblings, unemployment and crime and homelessness – fix themselves. Good plan.
This bill, like almost everything else in Congress, will prove a testing ground for what America values more: partisan power and petty bickering, or some progress, however meager, on our ongoing economic crisis. The economic recovery is not real. The farm bill is an economic disaster as well as a public health disaster.
There is one thing that can change this: any kind of response from Americans. Unfortunately, too many have been silent on the subject of the farm bill. That will leave Congress, over the next few weeks of debate, to listen selectively to the the voices that are loudest: their donors in big agricultural companies and among wealthy farmers. In one year – 2009 to 2010 – those groups poured $8.5m into the fundraising coffers of members of the House Agriculture Committee.
Needless to say, corporate sponsors don't much care what happens to food stamps. Let's see if they carry the day.