The long-term goal of the U.S. farm bill now being debated in Congress should involve the rebalancing of taxpayer-funded programs between those who have too little food and those who grow it. Farmers — and specifically corporate agricultural interests — have been getting the better of the deal for too long.
Every five years, Congress renews a roughly $100 billion spending package that includes two major subsidy programs: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which is commonly called food stamps, and unnecessary financial assistance to farmers in the form of direct cash payments and crop insurance.
In its effort to find spending cuts, Congress should be chopping the handouts to farmers who no longer need it. Average farm household income rose to more than $89,000 this year, pushing total U.S. farm income to $128 billion, a 40-year peak.
President Barack Obama proposed cutting farm subsidies by $38 million in his budget, eliminating direct cash payments to owners of farmland and reducing the crop insurance program. The $9 billion crop insurance subsidy is not an insurance policy by any definition. It pays farmers dollar-for-dollar for reductions in crop yields.
A U.S. House version of the farm bill would cut direct payments, but make crop insurance subsidies even more lucrative for wealthy farmers. To find savings, the Republican-controlled House cuts $20 billion from SNAP and other nutrition programs.
Of the 47 million Americans receiving food assistance, nearly 80 percent are elderly, disabled or children. The average benefit is only $4.45 per day, but it helps low-income people more than other forms of government assistance. Food stamps indirectly stimulate the economy and support farmers.
The number of food stamp recipients grew during the Great Recession, because unemployment rolls swelled. Two of the states with the highest unemployment rates, Nevada and Florida, also experienced the greatest increase in food stamp recipients.
But food stamp spending is expected to decline with economic recovery. The Congressional Budget Office estimates it will start dropping by $1 billion per year.
America must help feed our poor, and it can fulfill that obligation by maintaining the food stamp program. We can do that and still reduce government spending by no longer giving handouts to agricultural interests who are doing fine without our help.