Long before the end of the year, it became clear that Congress would not pass a new farm bill in 2013. This notion was confirmed when members of both houses broke for the holidays in mid-December and left Washington, D.C., without coming to an agreement.
The farm bill regulates much of the U.S. food system and directly affects the affordability and accessibility of our food. The law was first enacted during the great depression to help farmers stay afloat and to help prevent starvation, as many relief agencies were unable to keep up with the increasing need.
Today, the bill is more broad but essentially has a similar purpose, and every five years the bill expires and needs to be adjusted and renewed. Movement on a new bill is already a year behind schedule and the House just bought some more time, extending the existing bill until the end of January 2014. The fact that lawmakers haven’t been able to bridge enough gaps to come to a deal seems almost normal these days; the stalling is emblematic of ongoing Congressional dysfunction (a phenomenon that immigration-reform watchers should find familiar).
SNAP cuts hit those already vulnerable
Among the many provisions in a new farm bill, lawmakers have already established that there will be deep cuts to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), sometimes referred to as food stamps. A major point of contention between the two houses has been how deep those cuts will be. If a House deal goes through, the new bill could reduce funding for the program by $8 billion over a decade. While that amount is twice as much as the Senate’s proposal, it is much lower than the $40 billion reduction many Republicans had been calling for.
Still, this is sobering news for many people already hit this season by the expiration in November of a SNAP boost from the 2009 stimulus plan and House Republicans’ apparent willingness to let unemployment benefits expire by the end of the year.
These measures are painful for many individuals and families, but statistics show some groups are disproportionately affected:
- About 47 million people live in households that receive SNAP benefits.
- Almost half of all those individuals are children.
- More than 25% of Latino households and black households faced food insecurity in 2011, almost twice the national average. (via FRAC)
Single mothers, elderly individuals, rural residents (especially in the South) and veterans also experience hunger and poverty at higher rates than the national average. In total, about 50 million individuals in this country are categorized as food insecure.
Additionally, House Republicans are pushing for drug testing for SNAP recipients and the Senate deal would cut some formerly incarcerated individuals off of food benefits altogether.
Missing the point
It seems particularly hypocritical that while some conservatives feel comfortable ignoring reality and mangling biblical scripture to paint SNAP recipients as freeloaders unwilling to work, they have no problem benefitting from multi-million dollar federal farm subsidies in the same bill. On top of that, lawmakers allow massive subsidies for mighty corporations with already tight strangleholds on the food system and a reserve of powerful lobbyists.
Contrary to the statements of other politicians, food pantries and other charities cannot pick up the slack of the SNAP reductions. Such resources are intended to be for emergencies and, most importantly, they are intended to be temporary.Aside from not being able to close the gap, temporary emergency relief does not address the root causes of hunger, economic injustice or social inequality — or drug abuse or incarceration, for that matter.
A fair food system for all may start with certain provisions in the upcoming farm bill, but it’s time to be serious about seeking solutions beyond this model to eradicate poverty and knock down the barriers to accessible, affordable and healthy food. Until we do, we will continue to see patchwork legislation every five to seven years that benefit the few and continue to increase hardship on many.