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Proposed farm bill cuts food aid programs

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Katie Mast | Sep 30, 2013 04:35 PM

If the House has its way with the nearly expired farm bill, $40 billion would be cut from the federal food stamps program over the next ten years. These cuts could mean that the 9 million Westerners who rely on the program will find it harder than ever to put meals on the table.

Every five years or so, Congress has the chance to update the 1,000 page farm bill, which also gives farm subsidies and funds conservation projects and school lunches. The last version, passed in 2008, will expire on Oct. 1 if Congress doesn’t act. A major sticking point is how much money to put toward the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP, which helps feed nearly 15 percent of Americans. Almost half of SNAP recipients are children; the rest are seniors, the unemployed, and disabled adults.

Since the 2008 farm bill was passed, the number of food stamp recipients has increased by roughly 45 percent, from 28 million to 47 million people.

SNAP 2008
Dark purple areas show areas with the highest percent of the population receiving federal food aid through SNAP in 2008.
SNAP 2010
The number of people receiving SNAP benefits increased across the country by 2010.

Benefit payments have increased even more quickly, from $34 billion to nearly $80 billion nationally. These increases were caused largely by the recession as unemployment and poverty rates increased and more people qualified for help, reports the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a respected D.C. thinktank. In addition, the Center reports that SNAP is at an all-time high for efficiency and accuracy, with waste and fraud dropping consistently over the past 15 years.

The House’s proposed cuts would tighten restrictions on food stamps, particularly on who is eligible for aid and for how long. It would allow states to add work requirements, drug testing, and limit indefinite aid for working-age, able-bodied adults with no children. The Senate has also proposed cuts to SNAP, but at one-tenth the amount that the House proposed.

The contention about how much funding to allot to SNAP– which falls mainly along party lines – is a major obstacle in passing the new farm bill. In addition to federal food assistance, which was rolled into the bill in 1973, the farm bill also includes subsidies and crop insurance for farmers. These programs are far from perfect as well. Critics note that large payments often go to corporate farms that could easily weather downturns without federal handouts, and that the programs are fraught with abuses. One of the greatest ironies of the House’s proposed version of the bill is that it cuts food access for the poor while increasing farm subsidies – which already reward the wealthiest farmers.

The proposed House cuts would hit hardest in Western states like New Mexico, where one in five people lives below the poverty line and receives some amount of federal food assistance. (Nationally, about one in seven people live at or below the poverty line.) In some of the state’s poorest counties, far more people rely on federal food aid. In Cibola County west of Albuquerque, 31 percent of residents receive federal food aid, and in McKinley County in the northwest quarter, it’s 36 percent. Reductions to SNAP benefits will not only hurt the recipients, says Jason Riggs, SNAP coordinator with Road Runner Food Bank, but will also put increased pressure on charities that supply food.

During the recession, Road Runner Food Bank, based in Albuquerque, saw a 50 percent jump in need, and the demand for food remains high. Riggs says that his organization is already supplementing food for people who rely on federal aid. For many people, monthly SNAP benefits last less than three weeks, he says. After that, they either skip meals or rely on food bank donations.

With the country focused on the deadline for a national budget and arguments over the debt ceiling, it's unlikely that the House and Senate will be able to agree on updates to the farm bill before it expires. The Senate, whose proposed bill recommended $4 billion in cuts to SNAP, says it will not approve the House’s $40 billion reduction, and the White House has promised to veto the bill should it reach the President’s desk.

But if cuts to the SNAP program do get made, it could hit low-income Westerners hard, especially families. “Everybody can get together about feeding the children,” says Riggs. “But for every child in a food insecure household, there is a mom or a dad skipping meals so their kids can eat.”

Katie Mast is an editorial intern at High Country News. Maps courtesy U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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