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Attacking Food Stamps While Ignoring the Real Waste

Ilana Novick

Nutritional benefit programs can't seem to catch a break. First WIC, which has numerous studies proving its effectiveness in health outcomes for participating mothers and children (not to mention cost savings as a result of participation) is in danger of a 9.3% budget cut as a result of the sequester. As if that wasn't enough pain for low-income mothers with young children, now everyone who depends on SNAP benefits (aka food stamps) should brace themselves for a new battle, this time over a new farm bill -- a casualty of the Fiscal Cliff wars which was supposed to have been rewritten last year. 

Just like the price of corn and soybeans, not to mention subsidies for agribusinesses, SNAP benefits are controlled by the Department of Agriculture through the farm bill. In the original revised version House Republicans proposed cutting $16.5 billion over the next decade from SNAP, which would eliminate food assistance to as many as 3 million low-income Americans, according to a recent article in the Nation.

It only gets worse. Frank Lucas, the chair of the House Agriculture Committee told Capitol Press that he's proposing a bill that would cut $38 billion in general agriculture spending over 10 years, with $20 billion coming from food stamps. Lucas tried to defend his plans saying that the cuts match those proposed by Obama and many House Members. He may be right on the overall cuts to the farm bill, but the White House made no mention of cuts to SNAP. In fact, Obama proposed an expansion, back in 2010. 

House Democrats are already fighting the bill, not only for its increased pain for low-income Americans, but also because,"it provides a significant boost to the economy, nearly doubling the return of every dollar we put into it," as Drew Hamill, Communications Director for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told The Nation. Thankfully the blowback isn't only coming from Democrats. It's also coming from Republican members of Congress from the Midwest, whose farmer constituents would suffer as a result of depressed food sales, if food stamps funding was cut. In the Senate, members from poorer Southern states like Thad Cochran (R-Mississippi) are committed to expansion, as their constituents struggle with dwindling jobs. 

Supporters of the cuts maintain that they're necessary for promoting economic growth and staving off debt, but the growth in their use is a natural outgrowth of the lingering recession, and according to research from the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities, SNAP's share of the GDP is expected to decrease from around .5% now to less than .3% in 2023.

As legislators argue over how much money SNAP should receive, the question of support for the agribusinesses that seems to benefit most from the farm bill is largely ignored. There are a variety of ways the current version of the bill does this, including direct payments, which provide a per-acreage subsidy for certain farmland owners, regardless of prices, crop yield, or profitability. This is in addition to the subsidies for growing a certain amount of commodity crops like soybeans, and the subsidies for farms who buy federal crop insurance policies, which cover not only the crops' harvest yield, but their expected revenue. A farm could have a great harvest, but as Ryan Alexander writes in US News, "still get an insurance payment if they can't sell it for as much as they locked in under the policy."

If members of Congress are so concerned about waste in the farm bill, perhaps they can make some cuts to the above mentioned programs, rather than further decimating SNAP.