The Farm Bill And The Continual Erosion Of The Social Safety Net

Originally published in the JHU Politik on February 9th, 2014.
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Last Tuesday the U.S. Senate voted on a new bill that authorized nearly $1 trillion to be spent on nutrition programs and farm subsidies over the next decade. NPR lauded Congress for their “rare display of bipartisanship” and The Washington Post praised the Farm Bill as “a rare bipartisan accomplishment.”

If you can get past the banal Newspeak of national political coverage for just a moment, you can see this bill for what it really is. The $8.7 billion in cuts to food stamps, while certainly marketed as “a necessary compromise” and a “tough choice during tough times” has been, and always will be, just a bargaining chip for lawmakers. In a period where millions of Americans are struggling to pay for housing, healthcare, food and energy, the self-congratulatory rhetoric coming out of Congress is truly repugnant.

Make no mistake. Our wealthy nation can afford to distribute food stamps. Though not as severe as the original $40 billion in cuts proposed by House Republicans in September, these cuts are still, nonetheless, wholly avoidable. These fiscal choices are reflections of our society’s current priorities. That’s why the bill neither includes a means-testing provision that would reduce insurance subsidies for the wealthiest farmers nor even guarantees the significant savings it purports to bring. (While Congress touts that this bill cuts $16.5 billion from the deficit over the next decade, 2/3 of those cuts wouldn’t take place until 2019, after the bill has expired and the political circumstances have likely changed.)

The cuts to food stamps in the Farm Bill come from changing a program known as “Heat and Eat” which allows states to coordinate the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) with SNAP benefits.  It was designed to help the poorest Americans avoid needing to make the hard choice between paying for food and paying to heat their homes. The Heat and Eat program is used in sixteen states, and while these states distribute about 36.5% of all SNAP benefits nationwide, they will bear 100% of the food stamp cuts.

850,000 households will effectively lose an average of $90 per month in food stamps. Elderly and disabled Americans will be disproportionately impacted by the cuts, as shown by the Food Research and Action Center, a national anti-hunger organization. And according to Census data released this past September, the overall poverty rate for disabled Americans stands at 21.4% and for African-Americans an incredible 36%. At a time when more than 1/5 of Americans, and 1/3 of African-Americans living in poverty suffer from a disability, we are moving to cut funds for programs specifically beneficial for those vulnerable citizens.

President Barack Obama has been quiet throughout this congressional fight. While there was once a time, way back in June, when the White House threatened a presidential veto over the House GOP’s proposal for food stamp cuts, those days are long gone. Obama quickly signed this bill, and the cuts, into law.

Representative Frank D. Lucas (R-OH) remarked that the Farm Bill “ is legislation we can all be proud of because it fulfills the expectations the American people have of us.” It certainly doesn’t fulfill my expectations. Obama even goes so far as to say that the bill will “protect the most vulnerable Americans” and we have fortunately avoided “gutting the vital assistance programs” millions depend on.

Is “not gutting” our new standard for success?

There are more than 46 million Americans currently living in poverty. If the President is serious about reversing the deepening social inequities in this country then he’ll need to make stronger defenses for anti-poverty programs, particularly when their future is threatened.

And the Democratic Party, a party that paints itself as bulwarks of the social safety net, should be ashamed. 46 Democratic senators and 166 Democratic congressional representatives voted yes to cutting food stamps, despite their frequent stump speeches about inequality and economic struggle.

Chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) praised her colleagues for “working across party lines.” But we certainly don’t have to praise them. As citizens, as students, we must fight against the pressure to think that any “bipartisan bill” is cause for celebration.

This one is surely not.

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