The farm bill is always one of the more sausage-making bills in Congress, actually literally so. Every five years agribusiness interests and the politicians who get contributions from them divy up a giant pot of money and ensure that the corporate welfare can keep flowing. In previous years, subsidies went to commodity crops like corn and soybeans over fruits and nuts by an 8:1 margin. And the top 20% of farmers got 81% of the subsidies.
There was some thought that this year, the jig would be up for the farm bill. There were multiple efforts in the various “grand bargain” bills to factor out direct subsidies to farmers, and that was thought to be a done deal. And that’s mostly the case, the subsidies get replaced this year by a crop insurance piece, to compensate farmers in low-yield years. But in the apparently bipartisan zeal – the Senate farm bill is the product of both Republican Pat Roberts and Democrat Debbie Stabenow – to cut more out of the farm bill, to save a relatively paltry $24 billion over ten years, another source of money has been attacked – food stamps.
The Senate farm bill tightens enforcement measures to prevent waste and errors in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Under a separate provision, it also cuts $4.5 billion in food assistance to families that receive heating aid. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the latter will reduce benefits for about 500 million [sic: thousand?] families by an average of $90 a month.
The changes are meant to appease Republican concerns about food stamp abuse and waste, while also giving Democrats more flexibility on farm subsidies, the other major focus of the farm bill.
Just how prevalent are food stamp abuse and waste? In 2010, SNAP’s payment accuracy rate averaged 96.2 percent nationwide. That’s an all-time high for the program and includes both under- and overpayment. The error rate drops below 3 percent for overpayment alone.
So the Senate wants to cut back food stamps for those who get heating assistance – because we can’t just heat a poor person’s home AND make sure they don’t starve – as well as address an almost non-existent error rate. CBO couldn’t even score the savings on abuse because there largely is no abuse.
The idea is to stop anyone who receives $1 in energy assistance to qualify for food aid. I don’t know why the assumption is that there’s a universe of the poor that can afford food but not heat for their homes in the winter, but there we are. This is $4.5 billion directly out of the mouths of the poorest citizens in the country, at a time when the tax rate for the top 1% is at the lowest level in several decades.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand made an emotional speech to try and restore this funding, through an amendment she has to the farm bill. She would pay for the restoration by reducing the crop insurance funds. Many of the crop insurance companies, who would see a cap on their payouts down to $825 million from $1.3 billion and a reduction in guaranteed profits from 14% to 12%, are based overseas. This is a simple values question. Who do you support, foreign corporations and their corporate welfare, or the desperately poor?
“Under this bill, families in New York that are already struggling will lose about $90 a month for food that goes onto their tables,” Gillibrand said. The senator recalled one mother describing how her son would scrounge extra food from school lunches so the family could have something for dinner before they finally qualified for food stamps.
“Ninety dollars a month may not sound like a lot to some people. But I can tell you that if you’re a parent who’s trying to protect your children and feed them good, wholesome, nutritious food, it means everything in the world,” said Gillibrand, noting that in New York state alone, some 300,000 people would lose enough food aid to leave them hungry one week a month.
“I don’t know if any parents who’re watching today, whether you personally ever heard your child say, ‘Mommy, I’m still hungry.’ Well, imagine not being able to help your child and feed your child,” Gillibrand said. “Imagine that your child says this every single day. That is what we are facing here.”
Food stamps have already been cut twice – once for the child nutrition bill – in the past couple years, after a big expansion under the stimulus package. The needs are clear: 45 million Americans used food stamps in 2011. The House bill is even worse than this Senate cutback of $4.5 billion, seeking a whopping $36 billion in savings. So it looks like, one way or the other, the poor will take another punch in the gut during this recession. At least with Gillibrand’s amendment, the Senate would start from a higher position when the inevitable compromise measure comes down.