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Farm Bill stalls over differences in SNAP spending

posted on November 27, 2013

Prospects dimmed last week for a farm bill before the end of the year.  House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas acknowledged it would now be “very challenging” for him to meet the Republican leadership’s schedule of having a final agreement back on the House floor by December 13th.

The Oklahoma Republican had pushed for the framework of a deal before the Thanksgiving recess. But after several face-to-face meetings between House and Senate leaders, Lucas acknowledged that negotiators had made little progress. 

Congress failed to approve the farm bill in 2012 and it’s now at risk of doing the same in 2013 pushing the measure into a yet a third year of debate.

Lawmakers are still at odds over the fine print in the commodity portion of the farm bill.  And then there is the polarizing issue of federal nutrition programs. John Nichols examined the numbers and filed this report. 

In the wake of the worst economic downturn since the Depression, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, grew dramatically.  According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the rates of participation and spending on SNAP both soared to record levels in 2011.  In an average month that year, nearly 45 million people -- one out of every seven U.S. residents -- received SNAP benefits. 

The result?  Federal spending for the program formerly known as Food Stamps ballooned to an unprecedented annual cost of $78 billion. 

Both the House and Senate have approved reductions in nutritional spending.  The Senate measure would cut SNAP by $4 billion over 10 years, while House lawmakers want cuts of nearly $40 billion.

And critics say SNAP spending is out of control.  

Rep. Steve King R - Iowa: “I’ll continue working with my colleagues to implement reforms in the SNAP program, to cut back on waste, fraud and abuse in the program, to ensure that those funds are available to those who are needy.  The cost of SNAP has more than doubled from 2008 to 2012, as has have the enrollees gone from about 28.2 million up to 47.7 million.”

Proponents insist SNAP is one of the government’s most effective anti-hunger programs, and they claim it’s helped millions of low-income families, children and seniors.    According to the CBO, SNAP kept nearly 5 million Americans out of poverty in 2012, including more than 2 million children.

Critics, however, are calling for numerous reforms, including more rigorous work requirements.   But the man charged with administrating the largest program in the domestic hunger safety net, says tougher work requirements would do little to cut spending.   

Sec. Tom Vilsack, Department of Agriculture: Here's what people do not understand about the SNAP program, 92% of people receiving SNAP are either senior citizens, people with disabilities, children or folks who are actually working today.  So when we talk about work requirements we're only talking about 8% of SNAP beneficiaries.  Of that 8% the current law says that if they are not getting a job, if they're not in an education program or training program they only get 3 months of benefits every 36 months.

Last week, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, cited government data revealing that SNAP spending – as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product --  actually declined slightly in fiscal year 2013.  The researchers project SNAP spending will continue to decline, falling 5 percent in fiscal year 2014. 

And as the economic recovery continues and fewer people qualify for SNAP, the CBO expects continue to decline and return to its 1995 levels by 2019.

But that may be of little consolation to farmers and ranchers whose management decisions are highly influenced by government policy.  And with the growing likelihood that Congressional debate on the Farm Bill will stretch into a third year, Vilsack reminds agricultural interests that they too benefit from nutritional programs. 

Sec. Tom Vilsack, USDA: “…the SNAP program is also about that farm safety net because if folks can buy more at the grocery store they're in fact going to buy more and it helps to stabilize farm prices.  15 cents of every food dollar spent in the grocery store ends up ultimately in a farmer's pocket.  So it is part of the safety net in addition to helping our struggling families.”

If Congress fails to approve a new Farm Bill by year’s end – and does not extend the 2008 law again -- U.S. farm policy will revert to the last “permanent” farm bill of 1938.  Those provisions were last updated during the Truman Administration and experts say the antiquated policies could send prices sharply higher – especially for dairy products. For Market to Market, I’m John Nichols.              

Tags: benefits Center on Budget and Policy Priorities economy governement and policy SNAP spending Steve King Tom Vilsack USDA


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