A Food Stamp Food Fight That the Poor Will Lose

Both the House and Senate’s Farm Bills cut food stamps, but why?

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Kevin Concannon, U.S. undersecretary of agriculture, chats with vendor Helen Wise at the State Farmers Market in Raleigh, N.C., on Tuesday, May 8, 2012. The federal government is spending $4 million to make such markets more accessible to food stamp recipients.

Earlier this year, Congress only managed to extend the expired farm bill – which includes a host of agriculture and nutrition related programs – as part of the deal to avoid the so-called "fiscal cliff." That move funded the bill's programs through September. Now, determined to avoid a repeat performance, it seems, both chambers are moving their own respective bills forward again.

The Senate this week passed, by a vote of 66-27, a new farm bill that, amongst its many provisions, would eliminate more than $4 billion in food stamp funding over 10 years. But that's peanuts next to the $20 billion in cuts that the House has in mind, which would toss nearly two million households out of the program.

Why does Congress want to cut food stamps now? To hear proponents of the cuts tell it, the program has exploded, growing wildly out of control since (conveniently) President Obama took office. "Any meaningful support for farmers and ranchers in this trillion-dollar bill is unnecessarily held hostage to the unchecked growth of food stamp entitlements and numerous other programs unrelated to farming," said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. "Nearly 80 percent of it consists of a massive expansion in food stamps, trapping millions in long-term dependency."

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But Cruz's version of events doesn't pass the smell test. Of course food stamp usage has increased in the last few years, due to the whole worst-recession-since-the-Great-Depression thing. Increased payments during a time of skyrocketing unemployment are a feature of a functioning social safety net, not a bug.

As the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities' Chad Stone laid out here at U.S. News last month, spending on food stamps (formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) will naturally decline as the economy recovers. About two-thirds of the increase in food stamps in recent years is due to the weak economy. Another 20 percent of the increase is due to a temporary boost in payments authorized as part of the 2009 Recovery Act that is due to expire in November.

So any cuts agreed to by the House and Senate will be piled on top of that automatic reduction. As The Nation's George Zornick wrote, "It's official: Congress will slash food stamp funding in the midst of a deep economic recession, when more people rely on food stamps than ever before."

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

Indeed, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 50 million Americans – 17 million of them children – were food insecure last year.  Leaving aside the moral imperative of ensuring that our fellow Americans don't starve, there is also little economic justification for cutting food stamps, considering that they are one of the most effective ways of pumping money into the local economy, far more so than a host of other economic recovery measures that Congress has passed with glee.

As usual, it seems that lawmakers are trying to prove their fiscal bona fides by cutting programs that are helping those who most need it, allowing an obsession with the deficit to drive their actions, when the deficit is a problem that, for the moment, has been solved.

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