Last June, around the time the House of Representatives began its scorched-earth dismantling of the farm bill, President Obama threatened to veto legislation that cut too deeply into the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program. In a statement, the White House defended food stamps, calling the program “a cornerstone of our nation's food assistance safety net." Rather than slashing SNAP, the administration said, the House should find ways to limit the size of the massive five-year bill by reducing the budget of federal agriculture programs such as subsidized crop insurance.
Nine months later—and two years behind schedule—both the House and, just yesterday, the Senate have passed a bipartisan version of the farm bill that Obama is set to sign on Friday. The conference committees that hashed out this agreement landed on a cut of $8.7 billion to SNAP—far less than the $39 billion the House had hoped to slash from the program and yet a good deal more than the $4.5 billion in cuts the Senate approved last summer. The subsidized crop insurance program, on the other hand, is getting an additional $6 billion in funding.
Yesterday, the Associated Press called the reduction in SNAP “a mostly symbolic cut in food stamps.” Meanwhile, the Washington Post editorial board called on the president to veto the farm bill, citing the gross inequity between its decreased benefits for the poor and what amounts to maintaining the status quo of corporate welfare for agriculture.
“It is only a slight exaggeration to say that this legislative grotesquerie gives to the rich and takes from the poor,” the editorial reads.
While the overall breakdown of the spending favors SNAP—80 percent of the farm bill is food stamps; 15 percent is ag subsidies—the effect of the cuts will be far more threatening to the hungry than to farmers.
For the 47 million people enrolled in the food assistance benefit program, the average monthly household income is just $744. Last November, when $4 billion of stimulus funding for SNAP ended, all recipients were hit with an average reduction in benefits of roughly $38 per month. Now, the new farm bill will add a further average cut of $90 per month for some 850,000 households.
The new cuts will hit hardest in the states that give poor people a nominal subsidy to heat their homes that automatically qualifies them for additional SNAP benefits. That means of maxamizing benefits, known as “heat and eat,” will no longer be allowed. Additionally, hungry undocumented immigrants, college students, lottery winners, and dead people will be blocked from the program. In 2014, being in college apparently means you can’t possibly be too poor to afford food.
On the ag side of things, the 10 percent of farmers who have received 75 percent of all subsidies between 1995 and 2012, according to the Environmental Working Group, have earned an average of $32,043 per year in federal payments. While it lays to rest the direct payment program, which guaranteed farmers a chunk of cash regardless of what they grew or how prices or weather fluctuated in a given year, the new farm bill shifts that money into the crop insurance program. The corporate welfare status quo is therefore largely maintained. Under two new programs, Agriculture Risk Coverage and Supplemental Coverage Option, eligible growers will be guaranteed revenues of at least 86 percent of earnings from recent years—years when crop prices hit record highs.
Why does the federal government, including many conservative politicians who say they like government waste and overspending only slightly more than Ayman al-Zawahiri and Beelzebub, favor handing massive amounts of money to large landowners while vilifying the poor as needy people angling for a handout?
As Dr. Daryll E. Ray, director of the University of Tennessee’s Agriculture Policy Analysis Center, told me last year, subsidy programs are preferred by politicians because throwing money at farmers somehow absolves the government of doing anything that could be misconstrued as “manipulating markets.” Never mind that doing so—controlling commodity crop prices when they go too high or too low—could provide a more reliable, cheaper safety net for the agriculture industry.
All of which makes the idea of this being a “nominal” cut to food stamps seem rather absurd. The day before the House passed the farm bill, the president spoke at length about inequality in the State of the Union address, touching on stagnating wages, stalled upward mobility, and persistent unemployment that hounds some Americans. In the speech, he called on Congress to extend unemployment benefits to the 1.3 million people who were cut from the program at the end of last year.
As for the social program that 47 million Americans rely on—the “cornerstone of our nation's food assistance safety net”—SNAP wasn’t mentioned once.