Friday June 7, 2013

Back in the 1970s, two very different U.S. Senators from different parties -- Bob Dole, a Republican, and George McGovern, a Democrat -- worked together to pass legislation to improve the accessibility and anti-fraud components of the food stamps program.

The program is now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and recipients don’t use stamps but a debit card. In 2012, 46.6 million people used the program at a cost of $78.4 billion. The program has more than doubled in cost since 2008. This is not surprising, since the downturn of 2008-2009 was the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The unemployment rate is still unacceptably high, and many of the jobs created during the modest recovery of recent years pay low wages.

Also contributing to the increase in food stamp recipients and costs have been fluctuating food prices and the loosening of eligibility requirements in the 2009 economic stimulus bill.

The benefits are quite modest and for this reason are quickly spent on food. In Vermont, for instance, the SNAP average monthly benefit per person in fiscal 2012 was $121.88. During a 30-day month that averages out to $4.06 per day. Try living on that. This is why food pantries inevitably see their usage increase significantly at the end of each month -- many people run out of money for food.

Statistics from the United States Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service for fiscal 2011 indicate that:

* Most SNAP participants are children or the elderly: "Nearly half (45 percent) of participants were under age 18 and nearly 9 percent were age 60 or older." Overall, nearly two-thirds of SNAP recipients are children, the elderly, or the disabled.

* Many SNAP participants have jobs. "Over 30 percent of SNAP households had earnings in 2011, and 41 percent of all SNAP participants lived in a household with earnings."

* The majority of SNAP households do not receive cash welfare benefits.

The program has a proven economic stimulus effect, and children who have enough to eat are more likely to do better in school. Moreover, enrollment declines significantly during times of relative prosperity. Decades ago, nutritional programs such as food stamps/SNAP were put in the Farm Bill and combined with agricultural supports to gain urban votes. So usually the SNAP program helps the Farm Bill along toward passage.

This year, however, things are different. Despite the fact that the federal deficit is shrinking at a surprising rate, tea party orthodoxy in the House of Representative still demands severe budget cuts. Witness the current sequester cuts, which are hurting programs such as Head Start and rental assistance for the poor.

Congress approves a new Farm Bill about every five years. The Senate is now considering its version of the bill, which would cut $400 million a year from the SNAP program, about 0.5 percent. The House bill, which will be considered in the near future, would cut a little more than 3 percent, or about $2 billion a year, and also change the way people qualify for the program.

The program should be not cut at all. Cuts in the House bill would end SNAP assistance for nearly two million people, the majority of whom, as noted above, are children, the elderly or the disabled.

While SNAP takes up about 80 percent of the farm bill budget, about 15 percent goes to farm subsidies and crop insurance subsidies.

According to the Environmental Working Group, which tracks government subsidy data, at least 15 members of Congress or their spouses received farm subsidies last year, including six members of the House Agriculture Committee and two members of the Senate Agriculture Committee. Congressional rules allow members to consider bills in which they have an economic interest, unlike procedures in virtually every other area of public life.

According to the Associated Press, "Two of the House committee members who receive subsidies -- Reps. Stephen Fincher, R-Tenn., and Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif. -- made impassioned arguments against the government spending too much money on food stamps when the panel considered the farm bill last month."

Rep. Fincher, from Frog Jump in western Tennessee, even quoted the Bible (out of context) to justify cutting SNAP. No, this is not an era of Congressional giants, such as Dole and McGovern, providing bipartisan leadership for the common good. Rather, it’s an era of pettiness and gridlock, with cold-hearted, small-minded selfishness trumping all.

This is the third year in a row that Congress has tried to get a Farm Bill passed. It might be better to forget it and continue spending at current levels for yet another year than to cut food aid to those who need it most.

~ Mark E. Rondeau