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policy

Will Congress Let Americans Go Hungry?

Every five years or so Congress passes the bill that has paid scores of billions to farmers ever since the Depression. The second half of the bill has always funded food stamps.

This time though, the House passed a bill in July that lavished more than it ever

had on farmers and froze out food stamps with nary a cent. Food assistance for the American poor was dropped from the bill, with Speaker John Boehner saying, “We’ll get to that later”. Off went Congress on a five-week vacation for all of August and into September.

the bottom 15%

Some 48 million Americans rely on food stamps to feed their families. Even with the assistance of this program that approaches $80 billion a year, a recent report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) classifies that same number of families as experiencing chronic hunger and “food insecurity”, which it defines as some family members lacking “consistent access throughout the year to adequate food”.

The food stamp program, which now takes the form of debit cards, and goes by the formal name of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), now assists 15.2% of Americans compared to 8.8% in 2007. The cost has risen even more steeply — to $74.6 billion in benefits last year from $30.4 billion in 2007. That is partly because of an increase in benefits from the 2009 stimulus, but the recession and persistent unemployment that followed the 2008 economic collapse are obviously the principal drivers.

House Republicans have voted to cut $40 billion from the food assistance program over 10 years, which is estimated to bump 3.8 million families off the rolls. Partly, they can point to the elimination of strict income and asset tests, making it easier to qualify, as a cause for the steep rise in food stamp recipients. But heard more often is their belief that many of our unemployed are the result of government programs that, in effect, pay them not to work. Stephen Fincher, a Republican from Tennessee, justified his vote to drop food stamps from the farm bill by quoting the Bible — “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat”. He thinks it is “not for Washington to steal” from us and give to others, but is unconflicted about the $3.5 million in ”stolen” farm subsidies his farm properties have collected from the government since 1999. Accordingly, his party wants to impose work requirements (with no accompanying job training aid) that would drop able-bodied, childless adults from the food stamp rolls if they do not find at least a part time job within 90 days — a perversity that turns on its head being on food stamps because of the loss of a job or the inability to find one in these times of high unemployment.

fraud

And Republicans are convinced that the burgeoning food stamp rolls mean SNAP is rife with fraud, although evidence either for or against that claim is hard to come by. Certainly there is fraud — fraud follows money — but the solution should be to vote the money to root out fraud rather than exact vengeance on all by cutting everyone’s benefits.

Republican
Myopia

Someone is not paying attention to voting records. The Weekly Standard reminded the Party that "between 28% and 36% of votes for its candidates in last year’s election came from people earning less than $15,000 a year. That’s better than Republicans typically do among African Americans, Jews, or Asians”, the magazine said.
And Bloomberg
.com tallied that among 254 counties where food stamp recipients doubled between 2007 and 2011, Romney won 213.

Most violations are by those who traffic in food stamps, but purchases with SNAP cards are electronic and the USDA says it scans the data to identify suspicious transaction patterns. At the individual level, applicants may hide assets or understate income (which would have to match their tax returns). But the bar above which applicants are disqualified is set low. A family with a decent income would have difficulty hiding that fact with so much of their data available to the government. The Quality Control Branch of the U.S. Food & Nutrition Service says 91% of benefits goes to those below the poverty line ($23,550 for a family of four) and 55% to those with income below half the poverty line, and that means fraud is at an all-time low. Republican skeptics would say this asks them to trust a government audit of itself.

bare cupboards

Those concerned for the poor are much more worried about nutrition. One in four of America’s children are on food stamps. Hunger and attendant weakness seriously saps the ability of a child to learn in school and malnutrition can have serious long term effects. At the mention of fraud, they point to how little are the stakes at the individual family level, the benefits being so low.

The average subsidy is $134 a month, or $4.39 a day. The average family runs out of the monthly refill on their EBT card by day 17. The amount of benefits varies by need. Some examples found while researching this article: an unemployed single woman receiving $117 a month. A family of three getting $350, or $3.89 a day per person to somehow pay for three meals. A family of four, both parents unemployed, receiving $518 a month — $4.31 per person per day. “You have to be kidding”, says Paul Krugman, the liberal economist and columnist at The New York Times if you think people are choosing leisure over jobs for this kind of money.

Yet we hear Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions say, “It has become sadly clear that Agriculture Secretary Vilsack wishes to make welfare part of the normal American experience” and the National Review writing, “Now the government will give you enough money every day to eat three meals in a restaurant”.

the top 1%

At the same time that food stamps were dropped from the farm bill, Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty, economists who track income disparity, came out with the latest figures. On the sunny side of the street, just 10% of us raked in more than half of the nation’s income in 2012, the highest takeaway in the century that this data has been recorded. The top 1% took in one-fifth of total income. and captured 95% of all income gains since the recession supposedly ended. You do not want to know about the top .1%. As for the rest of us, incomes of the 99% grew by about 1%.

about that farm bill

There is no explaining why House Republicans, who want government spending slashed, who drove home the spending cuts that led to the sequester, who are now threatening to shut down the government if Obamacare is not defunded, saw fit to pass the most costly farm bill ever (not a single Democrat voted for it).

It was rammed through using tactics for which Republicans vilify the Democrats' passage of Obamacare. The food stamp amputation was decided behind closed doors. A late-night “emergency” rule was adopted to forbid amendments. And, despite a pledge to make the bill available for reading 72 hours in advance, House members were given 10 hours before the vote to wade through its 608 pages.

The House bill had cuts of $20.5 billion to the SNAP program across 10 years, but extremists blocked it as not being enough. That Boehner allowed the bill to go forward with food aid lopped off was to the delight of many Republicans who wanted farm supports to be separated from food assistance. Farm state lawmakers, focused on bringing home subsidies, have always had to go along with urban lawmakers concerned for the poor in order to get the votes they needed — and vice versa. Separation means the majority party need no longer compromise. If no longer part of the multi-year farm bill, food assistance standing alone could leave it dependent on annual appropriations and subject to repeated cuts. And as said, House Republican extremists have doubled down and are now calling for $40 billion in cuts rather than $20.5 billion.

Whereas it was hoped that austerity would at least see the beginning of a phase out of the wasteful and undeserved farm subsidies, a wasteful program that gives 75% of the handouts to only 10% of the farms and at a time when farmers make 25% more than the average American household, the bill instead creates new subsidies. Peanut, cotton and rice farmers and fruit and vegetable growers will now receive government largess.

To the subsidies that pay the richest farmers more than $1 million a year toward their purchase of crop insurance, the bill adds a so-called shallow loss provision for small scale losses not previously compensated. Those farmers will get direct payments of 88% of the “target” price of various crops when they claim a loss.

Perhaps worst of all, the bill increases price guarantees for commodity crops by setting the floor at today’s near-record high prices. That means taxpayers can expect to pay huge amounts to wealthy farms if prices drop in the future.

The House bill does at least get rid of $5 billion-a-year that was paid to farmers and landowners whether they planted crops or not. But other than that, the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard said ”the bill gets almost everything wrong”.

and did somebody say fraud?

The crop insurance subsidy program is far smaller than food stamps, but the money is in much larger dollops than the asset or two that mom-and-pop forget on their SNAP application. A North Carolina insurance adjuster was just sentenced to jail along with 40 farmers, warehouse workers and insurance agents for their scheme to defraud the crop insurance program of nearly $100 million by claiming fake losses. He was good enough to tell us, via the Associated Press, that “it’s everywhere, all across the country… All the adjuster does is take what the farmer gives him to work the claim. What the farmer does before the adjuster gets there, the adjuster has no idea.”

worldview

In the Doha trade conference, the United States wants to help farmers in poor countries gain access to rich-country markets, blaming the usual suspects such as France for the protection of its farmers that leads to the regular failure of the talks. Or are we just pretending? No president ever vetoes our farm bill. Chris Chocola, president of the well-to-the-right Club for Growth that advocates tax cuts, deregulation, free markets — the whole panoply of Republican and Conservative ideals — voiced his disgust to The New York Times: “The bigger picture is, how can developing countries compete with our massive subsidies? You can talk about improving the plight of the poor in the third world, but there’s no way they can compete with our farmers. There’s nothing free market about it”.

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