The Senate passed its version of a new farm bill Tuesday, but a portion of the subsidy package threatens to kill the measure in the House as it did last year. The farm bill ties together two hotly contested social programs—farming subsidies and food stamps—in a tug of war between lawmakers, with 47 million people on food stamps alone caught in the crosshairs.
Before 1996 welfare reform, rural lawmakers merged food stamps with their farm subsidies bill to gain support from their urban peers. Today, with exponential growth in food stamp enrollment, food aid programs account for 80 percent of the legislative package.
Both House and Senate five-year bills would cost almost $100 billion annually, with almost $80 billion of that total going to domestic food aid. The passed Senate bill would save about $2.4 billion from current yearly spending, and the House bill would save $4 billion, including across-the-board spending cuts that kicked in earlier this year. (Read the breakdown of both bills here.)
These “cuts” are small, given the extent of the recent growth in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), during hard times and good ones. SNAP’s 28 million enrollees cost $38 billion in 2008. Costs have increased 50 percent as enrollment increased 40 percent over the past five years, meaning the payout per person is larger as well.
The Senate Bill proposes cutting $400 million per year from food stamps, half a percent. Republicans, however, want a $2 billion cut: That’s $400 million per year more than they wanted to cut last year. Conservatives killed the bill last year because they wanted deeper cuts to the program.
Both liberal and conservative accounts of this battle tend to be full of numbers and lacking a look at the differences among people. Some people desperately need help. Others do not, and they should not be pressured to sign up for SNAP.
The Washington Postdeserves credit for following one couple’s internal battle for weeks as they struggled with whether or not to take government help, and then ran a he said, she said story. Husband: “We dug the hole. We should dig ourselves out. I’m not ready to sign up for this yet.” Wife: “Soon we might have to.” They’re both right, but Washington representatives have been telling everyone who’s eligible that it’s their duty to sign up—and isn’t it likely that three of 100 people on food stamps don’t need to be?
House Speaker John Boehner said Wednesday he will vote for the House bill, a major boost for the legislation. He voted against the 2008 farm bill. Doing nothing, Boehner said, means “that we get no changes in the farm program, no changes in the nutrition program.” The bill is expected to reach the House floor later this month.
As the debate continues, it’s once again clear that the word “cuts” is misleading and doesn’t give the whole story. And when it comes to the people affected, how food-insecure are those 20 million who signed on since 2008? For more background, read this WORLD story from November 2011.