Last week, the much anticipated farm bill passed its final hurdle and is on its way to the President for signature. The nearly $1 trillion dollar bill has been caught up in political wrangling, pitting major farming corporations against the needs of the poor and environmentalists. In the end, the government and the poor will end up carrying most of the burden.
There are some good things in the bill. For one, the labeling on chicken, pork and beef will have new information. The labels will now indicate where the animal was born, slaughtered and the meat processed. Foreign meat producers had been lobbying to have the labeling requirements removed, claiming it was an extra burden. For now, consumers will now where their meat comes from starting at the beginning to when it ends up on the store shelf.
The nearly 1,000 page bill also addresses issues endemic to farming, including soil erosion and the plowing of virgin lands. It encourages farmers to pursue conservation efforts by linking subsidies to those efforts, and reduces them in half for those that farm on virgin lands. The downside is that funding for overall environmental conservation efforts will be cut.
A big change has occurred in the way subsidies work for farmers. For more than 80 years, farmers have received subsidies for certain crops, regardless of how the crops do or what the market price is for them. Now, those have been cut and replaced with an insurance program that will pay out only when there is a loss, and some of these payments will be smaller than usual. In addition, the government will cover more of the cost of farm insurance (much like it does for flood insurance), making it more affordable for farmers. The winners will be the farmers and the insurance companies, and more risk is being taken on by the government. If crop prices fall or if there is a major disaster, the deficit would take a big hit.
The most controversial aspect of the bill includes the more than $8 billion dollars in cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The cuts come by cutting benefits for those involved in “heat and eat” programs. Most states allow for deductions for housing and utility expenses when considering eligibility for assistance. Currently in 16 states and the District of Columbia, anyone who already participates in an energy assistance program (which covers heating assistance) gets an automatic increase in SNAP. Some have described this as a simple way to cut paperwork, while others have said that there are those that are getting more in assistance than they need as the automatic increase kicks in if recipients receive as little as $1 for heating.
The bill sets a minimum of $20 in heating assistance to qualify for increased SNAP assistance.
The Low Income Home Energy Assistance program helps nearly 8 million households. In 2012 the program provided more than $3 billion dollars in assistance and for many it still wasn’t enough. Recipients that are receiving low amounts of heating assistance are doing so because the program has also seen severe cuts due to the sequester, which cut $2 billion from the program. Already struggling to do both, many will now be forced to choose between heating and food.
Legislators that supported the bill see this as closing a simple loophole. Critics point out that any amount of cuts can be the difference between barely hanging on and complete disaster. In October, nearly $5 billion in automatic cuts to the SNAP program went into effect, reducing an average of $36 per recipient. The cuts were due to the expiration of a temporary increase that went into effect during the recession. Almost immediately, grocery stores in neighborhoods with high concentration of customers receiving SNAP saw a reduction of sales as high as 10 percent. At the same time, in cities across the country food pantries were seeing a dramatic increase in demand and found they were unable to keep up, turning families away after running out of food. For the working poor, a cut of just a few dollars forces hard choices that can result in less healthy eating and increased health risks.
Nearly 47 million people currently receive food stamps, most of whom are educated and working. The new cuts will affect approximately 1.7 million people and reduce benefits on average by $90 per month.
The president is expected to sign the bill this week, which will set U.S. agricultural and food policy for the next five years. In the meantime, food pantries across the country are bracing for impact.
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