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.
USDA says SNAP feeds more than 46 million low-income people each month, about one in seven Americans. The average person receives $133.42 a month, or a little more than $4 a day. Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, N.J., made national headlines in December when he pledged to live on that daily amount, or about $1.33 per meal, for a week. Click here to read about his experience.
The Heritage Foundation is one of the most vocal critics of SNAP, which accounts for 75% to 80% of farm bill spending. The organization largely seeks changes in SNAP because, the organization says, it is an "expensive, old-style entitlement program that discourages work, rewards idleness and promotes long-term dependence." Representatives have said in newspaper interviews that "high-income" farmers also benefit from the program.
Advocates note that SNAP provided additional economic stimulus during the recession, boosting the fortunes of America’s farmers. Spending on the program rose to $78 billion in fiscal 2011. The Heritage Foundation expects federal spending to decline as the economy improves. Temporary spending increases were contained in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
Big growth in outlays
The Congressional Budget Office reported in April that spending on SNAP benefits grew by about 135% between 2007 and 2011. About 65% of the growth came from an increase in recipients, "primarily driven by the weak economy." Another 20% came from temporarily higher benefit amounts. The remaining 14% stemmed from higher food prices and lower income among beneficiaries, among other factors.
Lisa Sutherland, an adjunct professor of pediatrics at Dartmouth College who formerly worked as vice president of nutrition for Kellogg North America, notes data that show the program has lifted 3.9 million people out of poverty. "If you cut the program, how many people do you drop down into poverty?" she asks.
For the 18 million food-insecure families in the U.S., she says, "food remains a privilege and not a right."
SNAP funding in recent years has been directed to educating recipients on the value of nutrition. The program has supported government efforts to fight obesity. More than two-thirds of adults and one-third of children are overweight or obese, says Robin Schepper, the former director of Let's Move, a campaign to reduce obesity led by first lady Michelle Obama.
Speaking at the Farm Journal Forum, Schepper questioned why so little government funding goes to fight obesity and so much goes to address chronic diseases that are often brought on by the condition. A full 21% of the federal budget is allocated to Medicare and Medicaid. "We don’t talk about prevention. We could stem health costs if we dealt with well-care."
Cutting federal funding will also cut into contributed aid. Lindsey Palmer, director of nutrition and community outreach at DC Central Kitchen, notes that every $5 in SNAP benefits generates $9 in total community spending, according to the USDA. "We have to figure out how to replace that money."