U.S. Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) calls for cuts in SNAP at the 2012 Farm Journal Forum.
Both House and Senate versions of the farm bill would slice into this political hot potato
If the U.S. House and Senate split the difference on proposed cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, as many as 3,000 jobs could be lost in agriculture each year.
USDA estimates that every $1 billion in SNAP spending -- the government spent $78 billion last year -- helps create or maintain 3,000 farm jobs. That billion-dollar figure is roughly the amount that would be cut annually from the program if the House and Senate met in the middle over their respective farm bills. The House version of the bill would cut $16.5 billion over 10 years from the program, while the Senate's would cut $4.5 billion.
Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, made it clear at the 2012 Farm Journal Forum that SNAP cuts need to be part of a farm bill that will gain his support. He argues that real reforms can be made to the nutrition program without taking "one calorie off of one deserving person’s plate."
Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack, speaking at the same conference, acknowledged that fraud and errors can still be removed from the program even though they are at their lowest levels since the government began keeping track.
"Now, can there be reforms to the system?," he says. "Absolutely. Can we continue to do a better job of integrity in the system, even though we are at record lows in terms of fraud and error rate? Absolutely. Until we have no evidence of fraud, and no errors, we’ll always be able to do that."
Vilsack attempts to marshal support
Vilsack urges farmers to support SNAP, which he says provides a counter-cyclical benefit to agriculture during recessions, stabilizing food demand. The stimulus works its way up the food chain from grocers, to truckers, to the packaging and processing industries, creating thousands of jobs along the way. But he says it is "never thought about that way by farmers."
Ninety-two percent of SNAP recipients fall into one of four needy groups, Vilsack says. Nearly half of them are children.
"They are either a senior citizen who played by the rules and just living on a very, very small fixed income. They are a person with a disability. They are a child. Or they are someone who is in the workforce, working but because of the number of hours they work, or the wages they get paid, they just can’t make ends meet by the end of the month. They are people playing by the rules that we care about."
In August -- two months before the presidential elections and amid the farm bill debate in Congress -- the Obama Administration announced a series of what it called aggressive measures to counter fraud in the program. These actions included tougher financial sanctions for retailers who defraud the program and new requirements for states to ensure benefits go solely to eligible people.
The House version of the farm bill would eliminate food assistance to more than 2 million people. The savings come primarily from eliminating a state option known as categorical eligibility, which extends benefits to people with disposable income below the poverty line, even if their gross incomes or assets are above the line. The Senate bill gets its savings by limiting state SNAP coordination with Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program payments. This provision is also contained in a bill that passed the House Agriculture Committee.