If President Obama meant what he said in his State of the Union address about acting alone to reduce income inequality in America, he will veto the massive farm bill sent to his desk by Congress. This bill literally takes more from the poor, and gives it to the rich.
He won’t veto the bill, of course. That would only set the stage for more partisan warfare and disrupt agricultural markets.
But this is an unfair bill, which may have passed because, after two years, Congress grew weary of debating it.
That hasn’t stopped federal lawmakers from congratulating themselves for reaching a compromise that favors the interests of big corporate agriculture over low-income Americans relying on food stamps.
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The bill cuts $8.5 billion over 10 years from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a modest 1 percent trim of total food stamp spending. That is more palatable than the larger $40 billion slash-and-burn pushed by Republicans.
Big agriculture interests fared better. The bill eliminates $40.8 billion of direct payments to big farms, but then gives back $27.2 billion in a new crop-price insurance scheme. Farmers making up to $900,000 per year in adjusted gross income can qualify for those payments.
There are good reasons to eliminate all or most of the big agriculture subsidies, as President Obama proposed in his 2014 budget. He called for a $38 billion savings in the farm bill, while Congress’s version save a mere $16.6 billion over 10 years or more.
A true compromise would have reduced payments to corporate farmers to $18.7 billion and left the SNAP program intact. The overall budget savings would be the same.
Compounding the shame of this farm bill, Congress refused to extend jobless benefits to millions of Americans, throwing them into desperate financial situations. For the first time, working-age people comprise the majority of SNAP users, according to an analysis by the University of Kentucky.
“Food stamp participation since 1980 has grown the fastest among workers with some college training, a sign that the safety net has stretched further to cover America’s former middle class,” The Associated Press reported.
Ironically, the cut to food stamp funding could end up costing the nation more than lawmakers think they are saving. Medical experts estimate that every $2 billion-per-year reduction in the SNAP could cause a $15 billion increase in health care spending for diabetes over a decade.
Obama can back up his strong SOU address with action, or he can kick another can down the road, hope the economy recovers faster or leave it for the next president.
There are some good qualities to the farm bill – for farmers markets and furthering organic research – but it fails miserably on closing the income inequality gap.