On Friday, President Obama signed the farm bill into law, ending a four-year long Congressional fight that dragged on longer than anyone in Washington expected. But contrary to what defenders of the bill claim, this was not a hard-won triumph for bipartisanship. At best, the bill is a mixed blessing; at worst, it’s a giant giveaway to the farm lobby.
Historically, the farm bill combines agricultural subsidies with nutritional aid to low-income Americans in the form of food stamps (commonly known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP). Long ago, these programs received bipartisan support on the grounds that they assisted poor farmers and helped low-income Americans purchase food. But while SNAP remains vital to the social safety net, agricultural subsidies have become a bloated entitlement that mainly benefits corporations and wealthy individuals.
To be sure, it’s tough to make an economic case for farm subsidies in America, which explains why they face such stringent opposition from both liberal and conservative intellectuals. Yet the bill’s supporters say the bill was necessary to help small family farms and reform the fraud-ridden direct payments subsidy program—a policy that guaranteed farmers a fixed amount of money for every acre they owned, regardless of whether it was planted.
But the truth is that the farm bill is still designed to give huge wads of cash to agribusiness. It’s just sneakier about it. Among other things, it creates two new programs—Agriculture Risk Coverage and a Supplemental Coverage Option—that Montana State University economist Vincent Smith estimates will essentially guarantee farmers’ revenues never fall below 86 percent of their earnings during years of high crop prices. If small family farms were the focus of the legislation, you would expect these programs to be means-tested; yet farmers making $900,000 in adjusted annual gross income can qualify for payments.
So the normative question remains: why should we subsidize agriculture in the first place? After all, there’s no inherent virtue in running a farm instead of a daycare center or a rental car agency. But the farm lobby has the ear of the House GOP which, in the age of manufactured currency crises, government shutdowns, and outright sabotage in the name of government parsimony, can somehow justify spending billions of dollars a year to subsidize business owners simply because their business is agriculture.
But it’s no mystery once you realize that some members of the House GOP benefit from those subsidies. For example, one report found that 14 House Republicans, including Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK), have collected over $7.2 million in federal farm payments since 1995.
To make matters worse, House Republicans simultaneously voted to cut the food stamp portion of the bill by $40 billion. Think about that for a minute. Government handouts to millionaires who own farms are O.K., but not to people who happen to be poor.
Let’s pretend to take this seriously.
Republicans maintain that SNAP enrollment under President Obama has soared, which they see as proof that the administration promotes a culture of laziness and dependency on government. It’s true that more Americans as a percentage of the population are on SNAP than there were in 2007. But SNAP is supposed to help struggling families, and with the effects of the Great Recession still lingering, lots of families are still struggling.
What about the argument that SNAP encourages sloth? The problem is, SNAP is a skimpy benefit that provides less than $1.40 per meal, on average. That doesn’t sound like a program that encourages Americans to live lives of leisure. Besides, more than 95 percent of SNAP beneficiaries have incomes below 130 percent of the poverty line, or $30,000 for a family of four, and four out of five of them are either working or can’t work because they have a disability or are senior citizens or children.
Still, some conservatives insist that the program is full of waste. But as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows, the facts don’t back up that claim either. “Almost 95 percent of federal spending on SNAP goes toward providing benefits to eligible households to purchase food,” the Center’s analysis shows. Moreover, as Jonathan Cohn notes, “a 2011 report from the General Accounting Office found that program errors, including both people getting too much assistance and people getting too little, affected less than 4 percent of recipients.”
The point is, cutting farm subsidies makes a lot of sense but cutting SNAP benefits doesn’t. Yet the Republican Party, which has issued hostage threats in the past to secure cuts in the social safety net, has chosen to fight for social spending that has no real substantive merit while simultaneously gutting the portion of the bill that’s most necessary. Tell me again how much Republicans care about the deficit?