The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (otherwise known as SNAP) that provides food assistance to about 50 million Americans as well as the entire Farm Bill that includes the program may be cut severely, depending on a bill from the House of Representatives and the chances of reconciliation with the Senate version passed June 10.

As I wrote here a year ago, and thanks to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, every 5 years this legislation to ensure that America’s farmers produce food and that Americans can afford to purchase has been reauthorized for nearly 8 decades.

 

As I indicated then, the first farm bill was named The Agricultural Adjustment Act and was enacted May 12, 1933 as an integral part of the New Deal 80 years ago. It restricted agricultural production by paying farmers subsidies not to plant on part of their land. This was intended to reduce crop surplus, consequently boosting the market value of crops. The current Farm Bill is a large multi-aspect omnibus agricultural and food policy legislative instrument administered by the Department of Agriculture.  It seems we’re still in the original “reduction” mode but now there’s no surplus, at least not when feeding the hungry is concerned.

 

My current focus is primarily on the SNAP program, formerly known as food stamps, the main source of food for millions of families, including children and seniors.

 

The Senate has already passed a measure that would cut $24 billion from current levels, including about $4.1 billion from SNAP over the next 10 years.  These cuts in food stamps would put millions of poor families at risk of further food insecurity despite the estimates by USDA that 49 million Americans now live in food insecure homes.

These $4.1 billion cut in the SNAP program are currently on the table despite the fact that the average benefit is about $1.46 per person per meal.  According to Food Research and Action Center, benefit levels are already too low to prevent hunger and the Senate cut could actually mean $90 less a month for 500,000 families already struggling to make ends meet according to Coalition Against Hunger.

 

A House version of the bill would provide for food stamp cuts of $20 billion, 5 times the Senate amount.  The bill proposed by the House Agriculture Committee would include those cuts over 10 years. So the House bill is structured to make even deeper cuts which could increase hunger among millions of children and seniors who are already struggling to make ends meet and living with chronic hunger.

 

The House version would eliminate food assistance to nearly 2 million low-income people, mostly working families with children and senior citizens. The SNAP cuts would represent more than half of the almost $40 billion proposed cuts in the overall level of farm spending, leaving most of the subsidies to large, wealthy corporate farmers unscathed.

 

These cuts will be in addition to automatic cuts on November 1, 2013 when the increase in SNAP benefits established by the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA) will terminate as scheduled, resulting in a loss of about $25 in monthly benefits for a family of four. This will be especially draconian and perhaps life threatening to millions of Americans.

 

The majority of the bill’s SNAP cuts come from eliminating an option delegated to state implementation known as “categorical eligibility” to low-income working families and seniors whose gross incomes or assets are just modestly above federal SNAP limits. However, their disposable incomes often fall below the poverty line.

 

The bill also eliminates incentive payments to states that have improved payment accuracy and service delivery, would cut nutrition education funding, and would curtail a state option that reduces paperwork for many households with utility expenses and also lowers state administrative costs.   These incentives would normally be attractive to fiscal hawks but it seems that because of the “social” nature of this program, they too find themselves on the block.

The Senate approved a version that will total $955 billion over the next 10 years. It funds a full range of programs that include crop insurance for farmers, food assistance for low-income families and foreign food aid.  It passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, 66 to 27. The Senate passed a similar bill last year, but the House failed to bring its bill to a vote

Despite the cuts to SNAP, the bill had its cheerleaders. “The Senate today voted to support 16 million American jobs, to save taxpayers billions and to implement the most significant reforms to agriculture programs in decades,” said Senator Debbie Stabenow, Democrat of Michigan and chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. She co-authored the bill along with Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi, the ranking Republican on the committee.

The Senate version would be a 5-year farm program (S. 954) and passed by a vote of 66-27, with 18 Republicans joining Democrats. It includes a $4.1 billion cut to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) over ten years. The House will attempt to pass its own bill starting the week of June 17. The bill approved by the House Agriculture Committee and now headed to the floor goes even further than the Senate-passed bill, cutting $20.5 billion from SNAP over the same ten-year period.

 

A so-called Vitter Amendment has been attached to the Senate farm bill. This prevents convicted ex-offenders who perpetrated certain specified crimes from receiving SNAP benefits regardless of  when a conviction may occurred, disregarding the possibility of a changed life and whether an individual has made any contributions to society. The amendment would also reduce or eliminate benefits for the convicted individual’s entire household, including their children, by requiring that individual’s potential income be counted in in means testing, while denying the ex-offender any SNAP benefits. As part of the application process, the amendment a statement that would disclose whether any member of the household has been convicted of one of the disqualifying crimes.  This is a classic example of the butcher style budget techniques so common to fiscal hawks, disregarding any human consequences.

 

According to Bob Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

 

It would prevent the receipt of benefits, for life, anyone who was ever convicted of one of a specified list of violent crimes at any time — even if they committed the crime decades ago in their youth and have served their sentence, paid their debt to society, and been a good citizen ever since…. The amendment would [also] mean lower SNAP benefits for their children and other family members. So, a young man who was convicted of a single crime at age 19 who then reforms and is now elderly, poor and raising grandchildren would be thrown off SNAP, and his grandchildren’s benefits would be cut…. Senator Vitter hawked his amendment as one to prevent murderers and rapists from getting food stamps. Democrats accepted it without trying to modify it to address its most ill-considered aspects.

 

Back in the House, within the House Agriculture Committee, the current scheme is to increase the amount of cuts to the program to the $20 billion over the next 10 years, an increase of $4billion from last year’s $16 billion un-voted House bill.

 

Several hundred thousand low-income children would lose access to free school meals. According to the Congressional Budget Office  depending on the bill, 210,000 children in low-income families whose eligibility could lose free school meals when their families lose benefits.  In addition, families could be forced to choose between owning a reliable car to get to a job and receiving food assistance to help feed their families.

The reality is that these cuts, as being proposed cuts are not needed to rein in out-of-control spending.  The recent increase in spending is due to the recession.  CBO has found that the recent increase in benefits is due to the severe economic environment and it is projecting that SNAP spending will decrease to 2008 levels as the economy recovers.

 

And according to Greg Kaufmann hunger, which now affects more than 50 million Americans, including more than one in five children represents an “increase of 37 percent in childhood hunger since 1999.  Kaufman points out that in New York alone, 702,000 people live in households experiencing hunger, the highest level recorded for the state since the federal government began collecting such data in the mid-1990s.”

 

An amendment by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, which was defeated, would have prevented the SNAP cuts by instead cutting subsidies for foreign owned crop insurance companies. Commodity prices for crops are currently high historically and in relation to cost.  In addition, the federal budget is currently under tight constraints. Given these facts, total agricultural subsidies and even direct payments can be reduced, but without touching SNAP.  An ongoing debate during the last few reauthorizations of the original Farm Bill has been the disproportionate level of subsidies to large Midwestern farms.  A net reduction in these subsidies can be achieved by cutting subsidies to larger farms and an increase to smaller farms where the impact would be far greater.

 

According the charity organization Feeding America:

 

  • In 2011, 50.1 million Americans lived in food insecure households, 33.5 million adults and 16.7 million children.

 

  • In 2011, 14.9 percent of households (17.9 million households) were food insecure.

 

  • In 2011, 5.7 percent of households (6.8 million households) experienced very low food security.

 

  • In 2011, households with children reported food insecurity at a significantly higher rate than those without children, 20.6 percent compared to 12.2percent.

 

  • In 2011, households that had higher rates of food insecurity than the national average included households with children (20.6 percent), especially households with children headed by single women (36.8 percent) or single men (24.9 percent), Black non-Hispanic households (25.1 percent) and Hispanic households (26.2 percent).

 

  • In 2011, 8.8 percent of seniors living alone (1 million households) were food insecure.

 

The organization reports that “food insecurity exists in every county in America, ranging from a low of 5 percent in Steele County, North Dakota to a high of 37 percent in Holmes County, Mississippi”.

 

Let’s reach out to ourrepresentatives to show them we care about our fellow Americans who reside in the richest country on earth who suffer from food insecurity and hunger. The SNAP program is not intended as a permanent stop for these people.  The longer term solution for those who are able bodied people capable of work is a job with wage commensurate with the needs of their household.

 

We have the resources to feed all Americans.  There is surely sufficient room within the bill for the House to make reasonable and far more humane changes in the allocations of funds.   Senator Gillibrand’s proposal is one alternative.  It’s not impossible for a similar package to emerge from the House despite its more hawkish views when it comes to spending cuts.  But the cuts don’t have to come from the table of hungry families and certainly not from the mouths of children and seniors.

Update:  Written before the defeat in the House 234 to 195.