“Politics,” as Bismarck famously said, “is the art of the possible.” The U.S. has a Democratic majority in the Senate and a president who spent time on food stamps during some of his childhood. Yet the politics of the Farm Bill made it impossible to protect food stamps from some cuts in the recently concluded Farm Bill debate.
Fortunately, advocates did beat back the worst of the proposed cuts, leaving us with more than crumbs but less than a full loaf.
It was a twisted path to this week’s enactment of the bill, which authorizes federal agricultural and nutrition policy for the next five years, with many a pothole along the way.
The Farm Bill was due for re-authorization in 2012, but was extended several times amid gridlock in Congress. A recent series of compromises brought what is officially known as the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2013 to the president’s desk last Friday.
The bill cuts an estimated $8 billion over ten years from food stamps ($800 million a year), primarily by severely limiting a provision called Heat-and-Eat. Heat-and-Eat is a technical rule that has allowed states to boost some food stamp allocations for clients who lack proof of their heating costs – typically seniors and those in public housing.
FARM BILL SCORECARD:
At the end of the day, the art of the possible more or less split the difference between the two sides.
PRO: The worst of the proposed House cuts were abandoned and no one will lose their benefits entirely under the new law.
CON: The Senate’s limits on Heat-and-Eat were deepened. so states like Pennsylvania that use this provision will bear most of the burden.
PRO: Long overdue subsidy reform stops paying farmers not to grow while helping to insure farmers against falling crop prices.
PRO?: The bill also includes a modest new program to support investments in stores in food deserts. I described this as “one of the bright spots in an otherwise not too bright Farm Bill.” New funding is also in the bill that could boost the returns to farmers who sell fresh produce to food stamp recipients at farmers markets.
Advocates say, however, this program has loopholes big enough to drive a Walmart delivery truck through and there’s no reason to believe most of the money will wind up either at farmers markets or even on fresh produce.
It will be some time before the rules for these new efforts are finalized, and their real impact on the lives of people in poverty can be seen.
CON: The government will continue to deeply subsidize a handful of major commodities – corn, wheat, soy, rice, and cotton — while doing little for growers of fruits and vegetables. It also continues to put most of this subsidy money in the hands of wealthy corporate farms, rather than struggling small family farms.
Because Pennsylvania was one of 16 states that opted into using this rule, these cuts will hit Pennsylvania especially hard. Our allies at the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger estimate that lost Heat-and-Eat funding will cost 175,000 Pennsylvanian households roughly $65/month in benefits.
A big shout-out goes to U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) for voting against the final bill because of these cuts. Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA) also voted no – but his vote was because he supported even deeper cuts.
Along the road to the new law, negotiations got rid of the most drastic food stamp cuts proposed by House Republicans.
The prior House version of the Farm Bill would have kicked millions of people off of food stamps through a combination of lower income limits, work requirements (even on people actively looking for work), and other barriers to benefits.
Congressman Trey Radel (R-Florida) was among those who voted for the House Bill in September, which also would have required food stamp applicants to pass humiliating, time-consuming, and costly drug tests. He wasn’t around to vote last week on the final bill, though, having resigned his seat in January after pleading guilty on cocaine possession charges.
The White House had threatened to veto the House version’s 5% cuts to food stamp funding. The administration remained silent, however, when all food stamp benefits were cut about 5% in November by the expiration of stimulus funding put in place after the 2008 recession.
As for the president’s view of the final Farm Bill’s 1% cuts to food stamps? “My position has always been that any Farm Bill I sign must include protections for vulnerable Americans, and thanks to the hard work of [Senate Agriculture Committee chair Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich] and others, it does just that.”
Does it? It’s hard to see how taking food out of the mouths of the hungry can be considered protecting vulnerable Americans. Is this Farm Bill the best we could do?
Where are we left in the art of the possible? The big challenge for us, as activists at Just Harvest, and the big question for us as a nation, is: can we make more help for those in need of food part of “the possible”?
People on food stamps and people in solidarity with them need to vote in every election, need to make our voices heard at every level of government, need to reach out to others, and need to build a consensus for a strong and compassionate safety net. And beyond assistance programs, we need to work towards an economy that works for all of us.
When our voices are heard, everything becomes possible.