The Farm Bill and the Future of Food Stamps
The House Agriculture Committee last week passed the draft farm bill, clearing the way for a vote by the House on the $940 billion act. But a standoff between Republicans and Democrats in Congress could still scuttle the bill. At issue is the debate over sharp cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly referred to as the food stamp program.
Republicans want to see sharp cuts to the program, and the version of the bill passed by the House Agriculture Committee strips $20.5 billion from SNAP, $4 billion more than what the committee proposed to cut in the last round of talks. According to a report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the cuts would cut 2 million low-income households from food stamp rolls, and eliminate free school lunches for 210,000 low-income children.
Democrats have expressed strong opposition to the cuts, with Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA) describing the cuts as a “poison pill” that could force Congressional Democrats to reject the bill. Representative Sander Levin (D-MI), the ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, is protesting the proposed cuts by taking the Congressional Food Stamp Challenge, living on the SNAP budget of $5 per day for groceries for a week.
Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman has weighed in as well, arguing that food stamps have “done triple duty” in recent years by (1) supporting millions of unemployed workers who lost their jobs during the recent economic downturn; (2) helping to prevent the economic downturn from being significantly deeper than it would have been without the SNAP program; and (3) improving the performance of poor children in school by ensuring they have access to a minimum level of nutrition. The economic impact of the SNAP program, in other words, is significant and extends well beyond the recipient families. Indeed, a report by Moody’s Analytics cited by The Economist concluded that food stamps were the most effective versions of stimulus spending available to the US government, generating about $1.70 in GDP for every dollar spent by the government (compared, according to Moody’s, with $1.62 per dollar spent on unemployment insurance and less than $1 per dollar spent on tax cuts).
It’s also important to remember who receives food stamps. Only those with incomes of 130% of the federal poverty level (currently $23,550 per year for a family of four) are eligible for the SNAP program. Benefits are determined by several criteria, including household income, assets, and family size, but are capped at a maximum of $200 per month. The average recipient receives just $133 per month. And as The Economist notes,
It is also hard to argue that food-stamp recipients are undeserving. About half of them are children, and another 8% are elderly. Only 14% of food-stamp households have incomes above the poverty line; 41% have incomes of half that level or less, and 18% have no income at all. The average participating family has only $101 in savings or valuables.
And even then, some 50 million food insecure people are classified as having too much income to qualify for food stamps.
But as Congressional Democrats argue they cannot support a farm bill that makes drastic cuts to SNAP, some Congressional Republicans have suggested they may not support the farm bill because the cuts to SNAP are too small. Representative Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) 2013 budget called for $135 billion in cuts to food stamps. The Senate version of the bill (preferred by Congressional Democrats) offer $1 billion in cuts to SNAP, and Senate Democrats have suggested they would not accept the House cuts when the two bills are reconciled in conference committee.
The problem is that both sides desperately want a new farm bill. Congress failed to pass legislation updating the farm bill last year, and there is considerable pressure on Congress to get the job done this time. The farm lobby has been pressuring for a new bill, and Members of Congress from rural constituencies across the country are pressing to complete it. Even President Obama has pressured Congress to pass a new farm bill.
And the situation is further complicated by the comprehensive nature of the farm bill itself, which Marion Nestle has explored in detail.