Clearly, we are suffering from a national empathy deficit when struggling Americans are written off as only in it for a handout.
One of the most egregious lapses of the 113th Congress was its failure to pass an equitable, long-term, comprehensive Farm Bill in 2013. House and Senate conferees had been meeting to set food policy for the next several years and still hope to reach an agreement on a farm bill by early next year, despite yawning differences on the way the bill should be structured. Historically, bipartisan farm bills have passed by linking agricultural subsidies with food-stamp programs for practical and political reasons: rural legislators wanted the agricultural portions and urban members supported the supplemental food-assistance portion. Unfortunately, the farm bill proposals currently being championed by the House of Representatives would either jettison the meager assistance provided by the supplemental food-stamp program from the bill entirely or would dramatically reduce the numbers of beneficiaries to subsidize a small number of wealthy commercial operations.
Nearly 47 million Americans depend on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamps, to make ends meet; nearly half a million of those live in Connecticut. According to government data, more than 90 percent of benefits go to families living below the poverty line, many of whom are working, and nearly two-thirds of those are children, elderly or disabled. Since Nov. 1, when $5 billion in temporary stimulus funds to the SNAP program expired, benefits to a family of four were reduced to an average of $1.40 to spend for each meal.
Now, at this very difficult time, America’s long-standing commitment to providing a “safety net” of social service programs is under attack in Congress. The House has passed two different farm bills: one would de-link food stamps from the farm subsidy bill altogether; the other would take away nearly $40 billion from the SNAP program over the next 10 years. The Senate’s version, while less draconian, would still cut nearly $4.5 billion over the same time frame. The House cuts would eliminate SNAP benefits for 3 million to 5 million people, according to a report released by the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group. Among those affected would be our retired military, some 900,000 of whom lived in households receiving food assistance in 2011.
Additional House amendments to the proposed farm bill would allow states to require drug testing, creating a presumption that all poor moms looking for food assistance are drug abusers. Other amendments create work requirements as a condition for receiving food stamps, as though many of America’s working poor are not already holding down one or more jobs. Sadly, full-time workers at some of the nation’s largest, most profitable corporations earn so little that millions qualify—at the urging of their employers—for government assistance.
The food-based safety net, designed as a helping hand to support adequate consumption and improved nutrition, is now viewed as “a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependence and complacency,” in the words of Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc. Inferring that government assistance is an aphrodisiac luring in “able-bodied,” lazy cheats is not a new tactic to undermine public support for safety-net programs. But it is incorrect, insensitive, uninformed and needlessly cruel. How well we remember Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s unfortunate, candid remarks about the “47 percent” of American voters who “believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, you name it.” Clearly, we are suffering from a national empathy deficit when struggling Americans are written off as only in it for a handout.
True, since 2007, government spending on food stamps has risen dramatically—$80 billion in 2013. The stagnating economy and the scarcity of jobs paying a living wage have driven more and more people onto the rolls. It is supremely ironic, therefore, that at the same time SNAP benefits for poor children and the elderly are being cut, our federal government pays millions in crop subsidies to billionaires or companies owned by billionaires. The General Accounting Office reports that tens of millions in subsidies went to three thousand multimillionaires who derive most of their income from non-farm activities. Dead people also have been documented as receiving the subsidies, sometimes for years. Established as a Depression-era lifeline for small family farmers, the crop subsidy program has been co-opted to reward vast, plantation-style producers of mono crops such as corn, soybeans, rice, cotton and wheat. Fruits and vegetables, known as “specialty crops,” receive no subsidies. The Working Group reports that 1 percent of farms received about $1 million each from 1995 to 201—a quarter of all subsidies. That amounts to more than $30,000 a year, many times more than is collected by the average food-stamp recipient.
Even more discouraging, those same millionaires and billionaires “are likely collecting millions more in crop insurance subsidies,” according to the Working Group. No one knows because, unlike crop subsidies, crop insurance subsidies are doled out without means testing, limits on payments or public disclosure.
“America’s corn crop has better insurance than millions of rural and urban families struggling to find affordable health care,” said Craig Cox, vice president of the Working Group.
To their credit, several House members have introduced legislation that would save taxpayers tens of billions of dollars by reducing subsidies to large farm businesses and trimming subsidy payments made to crop insurance companies and their agents. That legislation is not part of any pending farm-bill proposal.
So, in the name of prudent fiscal management, America’s poor are destined simply to make do with ever-more-barren cupboards. Never mind the fact that local stores and their employees will feel the impact, since every dollar in SNAP benefits adds $1.70 to the local economy. Never mind that we are spending billions on farm subsidies that encourage agribusinesses to plant more crops than we need at the expense of medium and small family farms growing a variety of healthful foods not destined for animal feed, processed snacks or ethanol fuel.
There is no economic justification for this wrongheaded policy. In this season of giving, we need to keep in mind that the demand for food assistance will remain strong until the economic boom on Wall Street trickles down to Main Street. Cutting food assistance and stigmatizing its recipients will not solve the larger problem, and will only increase hunger among those who are without a voice in the legislative process.•