Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Thoughts on Food Assistance and the Farm Bill Debate

The House of Representative's decision to strip the Nutrition Title from the Farm Bill before passage and the targeting of the food assistance programs for drastic budget cuts prompt me to offer my perspectives.  Much of the discussion has been misleading.

First, clarification of the problem.

“Food security” means “access at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members.”  According to the well-document USDA Economic Research Service Report, Household Food Security in the United States in 2011, almost 15% of Americans were food insecure at some time during 2011, with “5.7 percent with very low food security—meaning that the food intake of one or more household members was reduced and their eating patterns were disrupted at times during the year because the household lacked money and other resources for food.”

In Arkansas, where I live and work, the rate is even higher, with a food insecurity rate of 18.6%.

Even more alarming -  28.6% of Arkansas children are food insecure.

Children, the elderly, the disabled and veterans all make up major categories of food insecure citizens, who rely on our assistance.

Second, an explanation of the Program.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) creates a food safety net for low income individuals and families. Note that it is often referred to by its former name, Food Stamps.

SNAP has been carefully designed to provide efficient and effective assistance to individuals and families in need. When economic conditions decline and unemployment is high, more people need assistance, raising the number of people eligible for SNAP and increasing its cost. When the economy improves, SNAP eligibility is reduced, decreasing its cost.  That is the way it is supposed to work.

The high number of Americans who receive SNAP benefits is not an indication of a problem with the program -  the program is working as it was designed -  it reflects an economy that is still struggling with high unemployment, underemployment, and pervasive poverty.

Third, the facts regarding the implementation of the program - 

Although some House Republicans are adamant that SNAP needs to be reformed and reduced, they failed to schedule any hearings to produce evidence regarding the program.  Had they held hearings, they might have discovered some of the following facts:
  • Forty-seven percent of SNAP beneficiaries are children. Households with children receive 75% of all SNAP benefits.
  • 23 percent of SNAP households include a disabled person and 18% of households include an elderly person.
  • As explained in a recent U.S. News & World Report editorial, the Congressional Budget Office “projects that an improving economy will reduce the share of the population that participates in SNAP to its 2008 level in coming years; accordingly, costs will fall as a share of the economy. That's because most SNAP beneficiaries who can work want to and do work when jobs are available.”
David Brooks, Republican Commentator on the PBS Newshour broadcast reported last week that he had tried to undertake a story on waste and abuse in the SNAP Program but was unable to complete the task. He could not find the waste that he was looking for and concluded that the people who deserved the assistance were the ones getting it. It was a "legitimate use of money."

Fourth, a consideration of the economic effects of the program.

From a broader economic perspective, SNAP is perhaps the most efficient and the least appreciated way to help support and improve local economies.  SNAP benefits are directly transferred to local stores and farmers markets. They represent dollars spent in the local economy.

“An increase of $1 billion in SNAP expenditures is estimated to increase economic activity (GDP) by $1.79 billion. In other words, every $5 in new SNAP benefits generates as much as $9 of economic activity.” See, Kenneth Hanson, The Food Assistance National Input-Output Multiplier (FANIOM) Model and the Stimulus Effects of SNAP.

Some have criticized USDA efforts to increase SNAP participation through educational campaigns - presenting it as though the government was handing out free money to undeserving citizens.  To the contrary, greater participation improves child health and nutrition and improves the lives of those in poverty, including the disabled and the elderly.

And, verified USDA economic data indicates that "[e]very $5 in new food stamp benefits generates almost twice as much ($9.20) in total community spending. If the national participation rate rose just 5 percent, 1.9 million more low-income people would be able to spend an additional $1.3 billion on healthy food. This would generate $2.5 billion in new economic activity nationwide." Just ask the local grocery store -  it's a successful stimulus program.

Finally, comments from our Representatives.

Today Farm Policy reported that Representative Tom Cotton from Dardanelle, Arkansas initially voted against the farm bill in part because the food-stamp cuts did not go deep enough. "The bill was more to Cotton’s liking with the food stamp section stripped out. He voted for it Thursday, explaining that it was no longer held ‘Arkansas farmers hostage to Barack Obama’s wasteful foodstamp program.’"(referencing Alex Daniels report in the July 15 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

Representative Collin Peterson from rural-western Minnesota, had a different view. Peterson serves as Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee and is recognized as long-time advocate for farm support.  He stated, “There is less fraud in food stamps than in any government program. There is five times as much fraud in crop insurance than in food stamps.”

Consider as well, the recent article, Fraud Used to Frame Farm Bill Debate.  Farm-state representatives:  Isn't there some adage about glass houses?

Let's have an honest, factual discussion of our farm and food programs and step back from the political rhetoric and class/racial stereotyping that has marred the debate in the House. SNAP works and unfortunately, many in our society are forced to rely on it. We can't let them down.


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