A Farm Bill Maybe?
Sep 20, 2013
Last week’s predictably partisan, harsh food stamp debate had one—and only one--redeeming quality.
Last week’s predictably partisan, harsh debate over food stamps and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) had one—and only one--redeeming quality. It now makes a farm bill possible.
Some, like House Ag Committee Ranking Minority Member Collin Peterson, (D-Minn.) says the bill will make the job of the House/Senate Conference Committee harder, if not impossible, to pass. He called last week’s exercise a waste of time. But at least it makes a farm bill possible.
Last week’s passage of a three-year nutrition bill would cut $40 billion from SNAP funding over 10 years, five times the amount the Senate agreed to cut in its version of the farm bill passed this summer. Unlike price negotiations on Pawn Stars, it’s doubtful Senate conferees will be willing to split the difference. But at least there’s something to haggle about.
Remember, all politics is local. House Republicans mostly hail from rural districts, where the passage of a farm bill is getting more and more critical as commodity prices fall. They will be faced with an interesting choice: Cut food stamps or have their constituents go without crop insurance, and in the case of dairy, little to no safety net.
Even SNAP cuts aren’t a slam dunk for rural Republicans. Look at the map of SNAP recipients across the country. Every Congressional district in the country bleeds some shade of pink. Hunger doesn’t have a zip code.
That point was driven home to me hard last week. Our local Rotary Club is spearheading a drive to feed elementary students here in Monticello. The number of students who qualify for free or reduced price school lunches has climbed to 35% at our largest elementary school, up 50% since the Great Recession began.
It’s not that we’re an impoverished town. Monticello is a quasi-bedroom, commuter community 40 miles from Minneapolis. Our median household income is $65,000, some $8,000 higher than the Minnesota state average.
After some discreet conversations with kids, however, our school administrators realized that many of the kids who get free and reduced-price school lunch were going hungry on weekends. The extent of the problem is hard to pin down, but the Rotary Club and the Monticello Lions are each contributing $5,000 this year to provide "backpack" non-perishable meals for Saturdays and Sundays.
Republicans say their intent is not to withhold benefits from those truly in need, but to force able-bodied adults to seek, train for and get jobs. But the $4 billion per year cut to food stamps would kick about 3.8 million folks off food stamps. And while the cuts don’t affect school nutrition programs, some of the kids who qualify for free and reduced price school meals do so through the SNAP program.
Democrats are not blameless. They refuse to acknowledge any waste, fraud or abuse in the program—or to tighten any rules that would reduce that leakage. In 1999, the General Accounting Office estimated SNAP fraud at 9.86% of expenditures. Tightened rules dropped that rate to 5.84% in 2005, but it still accounted for losses of $1.7 billion. Because total SNAP expenditures reached nearly $80 billion last year, even a 5% fraud rate would equal $4 billion—about the amount Republicans want to cut from the program.
In the end, all of last week’s debate was so much airless rhetoric because neither Republicans nor Democrats really want to solve the problem. But it did inch us closer to closure on a new farm bill. For that, we should be grateful.