The bipartisan compromise on a federal farm bill is more evidence that Congress can get things done if it tries hard enough. We worry, however, that the $9 billion cut in the food stamp program over the next decade could be a serious blow to the poor and, in the end, be self-defeating.
The farm bill has been a poster child for congressional gridlock. Partisan bickering has delayed for two years the reauthorization of a $1 trillion farm bill that pays for dozens of agriculture subsidy programs, government-subsidized crop insurance and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) commonly known as the food stamp program.
In 2012, the Senate passed a farm bill but the House version of the bill never came to the floor for a vote. The following year, the Senate again passed a farm bill but the House failed to pass a bill.
The 2013 measure failed, in large part, because House Republicans were pushing a bill that was too conservative for Democrats to support. The GOP measure called for more than $40 billion in cuts to SNAP over the next 10 years as well as tough work requirements and drug testing for food stamp recipients. The bill also would have eliminated free school lunches for more than 200,000 children.
This time around, however, negotiations led by leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees succeeded in hammering out an agreement that is likely to be palatable to both parties. The compromise measure passed in the House on Jan. 29 by a comfortable margin of 251 to 166, with many Democrats lending their support.
The bill still must pass in the Senate, but Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., one of the chief negotiators on the compromise deal, expressed confidence that senators would approve it. She touted the five-year agreement as a “bill that saves taxpayers billions, eliminates unnecessary subsidies, creates a more effective farm safety net, and helps farmers and businesses create jobs.”
The bill would reduce spending by about $23 billion over the next decade. It also would move away from direct subsidy payments to farmers toward a greater emphasis on insurance, which some advocates are calling “revolutionary.”
Cuts to nutritional programs in the bill are far less egregious than those originally sought by House Republicans. Nonetheless, we worry that cutting costs by denying food supplies to needy Americans is shortsighted.
Anti-hunger advocates estimate that the $9 billion cut would reduce benefits by about $90 a month for 850,000 households. Doctors lobbying Congress against the cuts say that health risks will surface down the road as a result of malnutrition, especially among young children.
The irony is that money saved by cutting food aid might have to be used in the future to cover higher Medicaid and Medicare costs. Researchers estimate that a cut of $2 billion a year in food stamps could trigger an increase of $15 billion in medical costs for diabetes alone over the next decade.
The proposed cuts in food aid don’t even make good economic sense. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, every $5 of federal SNAP benefits generates nearly twice that amount in economic activity. Food stamps, after all, are used to buy food.
Many may think of food-stamp recipients as a stable, unchanging group. But the USDA notes that most families rely on SNAP for only a short time. More than half of all new recipients in the mid-2000s were in the program for less than a year and left when they got back on their feet.
We realize that supporters of SNAP had to make some concessions to get a bill that would pass. And the cuts could have been a lot deeper.
Still, it’s a shame that negotiators had to agree to cuts in SNAP that will hurt the poor, put greater stress on community food banks and charitable organizations, create future medical problems and, ultimately, do little if anything to cut the federal deficit.