A farm bill, and food stamps

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Midwestern farmers, facing uncertainty about their crops in the midst of the worst drought in half a century, have something else to steam about: Congress’ failure to pass a new farm bill, even though the old one is slated to expire Sept. 30. That may not sound so bad, because farm bills are invariably bloated with market-distorting corporate welfare for agribusiness that we’d be better off without. Yet they also fund the federal food stamp program, one of the most important strands of the U.S. safety net.

The Senate passed a version of the farm bill in June that cut spending on food stamps by a modest $4.5 billion over 10 years and trimmed overall spending by $23 billion during that period by eliminating direct payments to farmers, which are awarded whether or not they plant anything. That was a welcome change in an otherwise business-as-usual bill, which retained among other things the complex system of price controls and import quotas that force Americans to pay up to twice the global market price for sugar. Meanwhile, the Senate gave a new handout to farmers in the form of added subsidies for crop insurance.

For all that, the Senate bill is a wonder of progress compared with the version that passed through the House Agriculture Committee, which contained most of the Senate’s provisions but would have saved an additional $16.5 billion over a decade by trimming food stamps. The bill never made it to the House floor, but that wasn’t because of its stinginess; “tea party” Republicans didn’t think the cuts went far enough.


PHOTOS: Severe U.S. drought

The House cuts would have eliminated an option used by most states when ruling on whether applicants qualify for food stamps. That would have resulted in cutting off families with incomes below the poverty line but with gross incomes and assets that are slightly above the maximum for food stamps. (This could be because they have a bank account containing more than $2,000, which might be the only thing saving the family from penury in case of emergency.) Eliminating this group from the program, according to the Congressional Budget Office, would have taken away food stamps from 1.8 million Americans and eliminated free lunches for 280,000 schoolchildren.

Insiders expect our paralyzed Congress to pass a one-year extension of the old farm bill rather than a new one, but eventually this country will have to address how much it is willing to pay to prevent hunger and to keep poor children nutritionally stable enough to pay attention in class. Even in the face of an economic downturn that’s causing food stamp participation to skyrocket, feeding the hungry should be considered a minimum requirement for a civilized, developed nation.