View from the Levee: Hunger Games

Republicans who voted against the farm bill oppose food aid – period. It's doubtful that deeper cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program would have changed their minds.

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USDA Economic Research Service
NUMBER OF SNAP PARTICIPANTS: The maps show the increase in the number of people receiving support through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The top map is from 2006, the bottom from 2010. Darker colors indicate a larger number of participants. Click to enlarge or compare other years at the ERS map site.
The failure of the House of Representative to pass its version of the 2013 farm bill was the slowest-motion train wreck ever.

The House Ag Committee, after all, spent three years building two different models. The first was sent to rust on a political sidetrack in 2012, an election year. The second, when it finally lumbered to the House floor June 17, was derailed by the very engineers who run the railroad—the Republican majority.

Why?

Most farm-bill post-mortems claim the bill lost because conservative Republicans believed the food assistance portion of the bill, estimated at $740 billion of the $940 billion, 10-year overall cost of the legislation, was too high despite having had a $20.5 billion haircut from earlier proposals.

A more accurate explanation was the pre-mortem predictions of the Ag Committee’s Ranking Member, Collin Peterson, the Minnesota Democrat.

Speaking to a National Grange meeting in Washington, D.C., more than two weeks before the June 20 farm-bill vote, Peterson suggested the $20.5 billion in food aid cuts would attract 150 or so Republicans to the bill. The remaining 80 or so House Republicans would not vote for it, he correctly noted, because “$100 billion [in cuts] wouldn’t be enough.”

Peterson, an accountant by trade, was in the ballpark. The final tally showed 171 Republicans for the bill; 62 against.

His math might have been off, but his main point was dead-on: The GOP’s fight over food aid isn’t about money; it’s about food aid. 

The GOP naysayers looked at SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the old Food Stamps program, and said, reflexively, That’s too much. Then, to prove Peterson correct, nary one dissenting Republican suggested an amount that, in their view, wasn’t too much. 

So is $80 billion a year in SNAP too much?

Feeding America, a hunger-relief charity with more than 200 food banks and nutrition centers across the U.S., doesn’t thinks so. According to that organization:

  • 91 percent of all SNAP benefits go to households whose gross income is at or below the government poverty line of $19,530 per year for a family of three.
  • The average SNAP household net monthly income (for SNAP benefit calculation) is $338 per month while the average “countable resources” like a bank account is $331.
  • And the average monthly SNAP benefit per person is $133.86, or less than $1.50 per meal per person.

SNAP’s critics are right about one thing, though. The cost of SNAP has grown dramatically since 2008, from $37.6 billion to $78.4 billion in 2012.

That growth has two roots.

First, the number of unemployed Americans grew 94 percent from 2007 through 2011, greatly expanding food aid needs nationwide. Five years ago, 28.2 million Americans received SNAP benefits; in 2012, 46.6 million received benefits.

Second, the participation rate in SNAP—the percentage of people eligible for benefits who actually receive benefits—rose from about 50 percent five years ago to more than 70 percent today.

As such, it’s no mystery why SNAP costs doubled: Unemployment doubled while SNAP participation rates grew by nearly 50 percent. People in need took advantage of the helping hand their government—you and I—offered them.

It’s simple arithmetic, not a political conspiracy.

Farmers know this math.

Fifteen years ago the pickings were pretty poor down on the farm. Taxpayers stepped in and sent $92 billion in farm program payments to farmers and landowners from 1998 through 2002—no questions asked, no drug tests required. They got it because the law – again, you and I – allowed it.

And farmers still ask today. More than 95 percent of all landowners and farmers who qualify for farm program benefits apply and receive them. Likewise, participation in Federal Crop Insurance, which subsidizes 62 percent of every applicant’s per-acre cost, now approaches 90 percent.

So is $80 billion a year in SNAP benefits that help feed 46.6 million Americans too much if, by law, they—like farmers and farm programs—are entitled to it?

To 62 Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives it is.

Ag journalist Alan Guebert lives in central Illinois.

 

Topics: Ag and Trade
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