Tag: farm bill

The Republican Food Stamp Plan is a Modest Step in the Right Direction

Republicans are expected to vote this week, possibly as early as today, on a proposal to cut the food stamp program by $39 billion over the next 10 years, while reforming the program to tighten eligibility and emphasize the importance of work. From the outcry among congressional Democrats and much of the media, you could be forgiven if you anticipated the outbreak of the Great Famine of 2013. In reality, the hysteria is just plain silly given how modest the Republican plan really is.

Note that as recently as 2000, just 17 million Americans participated in The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the food assistance program formerly known as food stamps, at a cost of less than $18 billion. Today, roughly 48 million Americans receive SNAP benefits, costing taxpayers more than $82 billion per year. Yet according to the Department of Agriculture, nearly 18 million American households remain “food insecure.”

In the face of serious questions about whether the growth of SNAP has been justified and whether it successfully addresses hunger in America, Republicans are discussing cuts that simply trim around the edges of the program.

For example:

Aggregate Spending will still remain at elevated levels even with these cuts. Even with the additional cuts (totaling $39 billion), average outlays from 2013-2023 will be almost $73.5 billion, which is more than $5 billion more than outlays were in 2010 (they were $68.3 billion). In 2023, long after CBO projects the effects of the recession to have subsided, with unemployment declining to about five percent, outlays will still be $69.6 billion, higher than any year before 2011, and more than $1 billion higher than 2010.

Almost all of the savings come from returning to traditional SNAP rules or ending loopholes. For example, the Republican proposal would restrict so-called ‘categorical eligibility,’ restoring traditional categorical eligibility, which requires receipt of cash assistance for food stamp eligibility. Currently, there are several ways that low-income families can become eligible for SNAP. For instance, households can qualify for SNAP benefits if they meet the program’s income and asset test: a gross income below 130 percent of the poverty level and a net income below 100 percent of poverty, as well as less than $2,000 in assets (although there are some exemptions, such as the value of houses, a car, and retirement accounts). However, more often participants become eligible for SNAP because they are also eligible for other government welfare programs. Nearly two-thirds of households receiving SNAP qualify through this broader categorical eligibility and were not subject to asset tests or certain income tests. This has allowed eligibility to creep much farther up the income scale, allowing many non-poor Americans to receive benefits. The Republican proposal would dramatically scale back categorical eligibility, requiring more recipients to meet income and asset requirements. As a result, the program would be refocused on those most in need.

The Republican plan would also eliminate the so-called LIHEAP loophole, which allows states to increase benefits for individuals who also receive utilities assistance under the LIHEAP program. Approximately 16 states have used this loophole to leverage nominal (as little as $1) LIHEAP payments into an increase in households’ SNAP benefits. Republicans would require states to provide LIHEAP benefits of at least $20 in order to qualify for the exemption, preventing them from manipulating the system to increase federal payments.

The bill puts a greater emphasis on moving recipients from welfare to work. The Republican proposal simply ends waivers from SNAP’s traditional work requirements that were granted to states starting in 2010. Prior to 2009, able-bodied adult recipients between the ages of 18 and 50, without children, were required to work, participate in an employment and training program, or participate in a SNAP “workfare” program for at least 20 hours per week. Otherwise, they could collect SNAP benefits for only three months in a given 36 month period. That requirement was waived nationwide in 2009, and on a state-by-state basis after 2010. Currently, 44 states have such waivers, although some states have announced that they will voluntarily relinquish their waivers next year. (Oklahoma, Kansas, Wisconsin and most counties in Ohio). As a result of these waivers, in 2011, the most recent year for which data is available, only 27.7 percent of nonelderly adult participants were employed, while another 28 percent reported that they were in the process of looking for work. That means that fully 44 percent were neither employed nor actively searching for work. Looking specifically at working age, childless, able bodied adults, almost three quarters or 2.8 million SNAP households, had no earned income.

Yet we know that work is the key to getting out of poverty. Just 2.8 percent of those working full-time today are below the poverty line, compared to 24 percent of those not working. Far from being cruel, by restoring work to a primary component of the welfare system, Republicans would be nudging recipients onto a path out of poverty.

Moreover, it is worth noting that the Republican proposal actually increases funding for pilot projects designed to increase work effort and reduce dependency.

The food stamp program is long overdue for reform. The Republican plan is a very modest start.

Breaking: The (Possible) End of the Agri-Nutritional Complex

The Roll Call blog has just broken news that the GOP House leadership has decided to drop food stamps from the farm bill, in an attempt to get the farm subsidies passed by the House, presumably with Republican votes alone. Nutrition is quite an “appendage” to jettison, by the way: it usually accounts for about 80 percent of all “farm bill” spending. Here’s a great infographic on food stamp usage from the Wall Street Journal online.

I think this development could be very good news: I have long called for splitting the food welfare (or “nutrition”, as it is euphemistically called) portion of the farm bill from the subsidies part. Legislators should be forced to vote on all of these programs on their individual merits, not as part of some logrolling extravaganza. The costs and benefits of programs to feed poor people deserve to be considered separately from farm subsidies, and ideally belong at the state or, even better, local community level anyway. Do we really need the federal government specifying that our kids eat greek yogurt? But I digress.

The problem is that farmers just don’t have the political or demographic clout that they used to (and in any case are starting to squabble amongst themselves) so it has long been believed that you need to load up farm subsidies with other, somewhat related programs more palatable in urban and suburban districts. That’s why energy, environmental, and food stamps are included in the “farm bill”. If you include enough goodies for diverse special interests, you’ll cobble together the votes.

That cynicism was turned on its head, though, when the farm bill failed last month because the Republicans thought food stamp spending was too high (even after some cuts and tightening of eligibility criteria). The Democrats, on the other hand, thought the cuts were too severe. Votes were lost on both sides of the aisle.

So, by dropping food stamps, GOP leaders think that enough Republicans will vote for this new bill to pass, even without Democrats’ support. They might be correct: clearly, powerful people in Congress think that all of these hippy issues are distracting attention from more deserving welfare programs, like farm subsidies. But I am not too sure: without sufficient Democratic votes on a subsidies-alone bill, they would need every R vote they could get, and some of the Republicans aren’t too keen on farm subsidies, either.

Another, promising development in this new farm bill is the repeal of the 1949 Agriculture Act. I said in a blog post a few weeks ago (and, indeed, on many other occasions before) that the key to reforming U.S. agricultural policy is to repeal the permanent legislative infrastructure—of which the 1949 Act is an important part—that lies behind the deplorable farm bill circus to which the American body politic is subjected every five years. By taking this law off of the books, farmers and their political supporters couldn’t threaten us with dairy cliffs and other elements of farmageddon if we don’t pass farm bills.

A huge, important caveat to all of this hopeful thinking: the GOP leadership may be splitting the bills only so they can pass them piecemeal with the hope of rejoining farm subsidies and food stamps in conference with Senate Democrats (the Senate passed their bill, logrolling intact, already), then have the conference report pass the House with Democrats’ support. Certainly Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) is by all accounts disappointed that the farm bill failed to pass and is looking for another vehicle, or several vehicles, to push this puppy through. That’s not something to get excited about: death by a thousand drips of poison is still death.

The other problem, which is theoretically fixable, is that the new GOP bill doesn’t repeal the 1938 Act, which includes several commodity titles that aren’t covered by the Agricultural Act of 1949, including price supports and marketing quotas, and the establishment of the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation. So the 1938 Act has to go, too, if we are to be fully threat-free.

I am sure that others will disagree with my analysis of how the votes will break down, and my analysis of parliamentary procedure regarding conference, etc. I’m really not too interested in that, anyway. My main concern is to get American agricultural policy on the road to reform/elimination, and in my eyes these two developments could be helpful toward that end.

Time to End the Farmers’ Dole

Last week Washington enjoyed a miracle. Legislators failed in a high profile attempt to mulct the public.

Legislators were debating the Farm Bill, which mixes Food Stamps and agricultural price supports. Even though Washington is drowning in red ink, Republicans and Democrats wanted to approve a measure to spend nearly a trillion dollars over the next decade. 

The Democrats and Republicans disagreed only over details. The Democratic Senate approved $955 billion. The House Republican leadership wanted $940 billion. The president took no position other than to support more spending. 

However, last Thursday the House leadership miscalculated and lost support from Democrats as well as conservative Republicans, leading to the bill’s surprise defeat.

Of course, Washington was filled with recriminations. But the collapse of the legislation is very good news. As I pointed out in my latest Forbes column, the politicians’ failure creates a rare opportunity for real change. 

Indeed, both parts of the Farm Bill require transformation.

As I wrote:

The first step would be to separate Food Stamps from price supports. Debate the former in the context of the scores of overlapping and expensive welfare programs. Indeed, the Carleson Center for Public Policy recently counted an astounding 157 means-tested federal programs. Total government spending on general welfare runs about $1 trillion a year. It’s time Congress rethought and revamped the entire welfare industry.

As for the farmers’ dole, abolition is the only sensible policy. New Zealand successfully took this approach in 1984. 

Farmers are practiced businessmen who employ sophisticated scientific techniques to produce food and sophisticated financial tools to manage risk. Farmers are enjoying boom economic times. Wealthier on average than other Americans, farmer don’t need their own special welfare program.  Indeed, many operators already make a profit with little or no federal support. 

It is rare to stop the two major parties when they combine for a raid on the taxpayers. The task now is to make their defeat permanent. In recent years Americans have deregulated communications, finance, and transportation. Agriculture should be next.

Read the rest here.

Food Aid Reform in the Farm Bill

A number of my Cato colleagues have offered good criticisms of developments related to the latest farm bill here, here, here, here, here, and here. (That’s a lot of “heres,” but farm subsidies deserve a lot of criticism!) But there is one possible element of the farm bill that would actually count as “reform”: a proposal to take some of the protectionism out of food aid.

I discussed this issue here and here. As I noted, the way these programs work is that when giving aid to help with food shortages abroad, ”[i]nstead of simply giving money to people to buy food from the cheapest source, the U.S. government buys food from U.S. producers and requires that it be sent overseas on U.S. ships.” Not surprisingly, that’s not a very efficient way of doing things. As noted in an article in the Guardian newspaper“50% of the US food aid budget is currently spent on shipping costs.”  

To address this problem, a food aid reform act has been introduced in the House, and would eliminate the requirements that food assistance be grown in the U.S. and transported on U.S.-flagged ships. Currently, this act is a separate bill, but the article says that “many observers assume that it will probably be tied into the House farm bill eventually.” So, while there’s still plenty not to like about the farm bill, a fix to this long-standing example of economic nationalism would be welcome.

Just Put Ernie in Charge of the Next Farm Bill

Yesterday, the U.S. Senate passed a farm bill with a projected price tag of $955 billion over ten years. As my colleague Sallie James explains, neither the Senate farm bill nor the House version offer up much in the way of real “reform.” And as Chris Edwards notes, both the Senate and House versions would spend more than the previous farm bill.     

One reason why taxpayers are about to get handed another _____ sandwich is because the politicians responsible for crafting the legislation are, well, politicians. And out of the mouths of politicians often come statements that indicate a softness of thought. Take, for instance, the following comments from Senate Agriculture Committee chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) who just successfully shepherded a farm bill through the Senate: 

“I don’t think you can have an economy unless you make things and grow things. This bill is about growing things. That’s what we need to do in this country,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee.

The Senate just voted to take more money from average taxpayers and give it to higher-income farm households because we need to “grow things”? Things won’t grow unless the grower gets a check from the government? What in the world is Sen. Stabenow talking about? Grow things? 

Apparently, one need only to have watched Sesame Street to be qualified to centrally plan the nation’s agricultural economy:

Food Stamps and the House Farm Bill

Debate on the House Agriculture Committee’s version of the next farm bill will begin in the Republican-controlled chamber in June. One of the most contentious issues will be spending on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, a.k.a, food stamps). The House Ag bill would cut SNAP spending by $20.5 billion over 10 years versus the Congressional Budget Office’s baseline. That’s too much for Democrats and it might be too little for conservative Republicans. 

Earlier in the week I wrote that the federal government should not administer or fund anti-poverty programs. Unfortunately, both Republicans and Democrats support big government so that isn’t an option. So let’s put the proposed cuts in food stamps in perspective.

The first chart shows the dramatic increase in inflation-adjusted SNAP spending since 2000. (See here for a quick background on what caused SNAP spending to more than triple since 2000).

 

The second chart shows the projected amount of spending under the House Ag bill versus the CBO’s baseline. Sum up the difference and you get the $20.5 billion over 10 years in cuts. On an annualized basis, it becomes clear that we’re hardly talking about major cuts to the food stamps program. Moreover, as the first chart shows, spending would remain near the elevated levels of recent years.

 

Newsflash: Politicians Pander to Agriculture!

The American Soybean Association (ASA) recently asked each of the presidential candidates to respond to a series of questions about agricultural policy issues. The questions covered farm bill and crop insurance, estate tax, biodiesel, biotechnology, trade, research, regulations, and transportation and infrastructure. The candidates’ responses (full text here) were not exactly models of courageous and principled policymaking.

I won’t parse the entire thing, as it is just too depressing and some of the issues (e.g., the estate tax) fall outside my area of research. But I will comment on a couple of the topics.

On subsidies and crop insurance, both candidates pledged to support passage of the farm bill, and the crop insurance and disaster provisions it contains. Mr Romney—no Senator John McCain in this area, at least—went on to make a broader statement about his philosophy on farm supports:

On the broader question of farm programs, we must be cognizant that our agricultural producers are competing with other nations around the world. Other nations subsidize their farmers, so we must be careful not to unilaterally change our policies in a way that would disadvantage agriculture here in our country. In addition, we want to make sure that we don’t ever find ourselves in a circumstance where we depend on foreign nations for our food the way we do with energy. Ultimately, it is in everyone’s interest is achieve [sic] a level playing field on which American farmers can compete.

Ugh. That is a monumentally awful statement. First, not all nations subsidize their farmers. New Zealand and (not to brag) Australia, for example, subsidize their farmers very little, and in very minimally distorting ways, and yet their agricultural  exports generally are thriving. They compete with other agricultural exporters because they try to be the best they can be given their natural resource endowments, research, experience, and human capital.  Second, the caution against unilaterally changing policies is, of course, ubiquitous in many trade policy statements (see, e.g., Ex-Im Bank, manufacturing, reducing tariffs generally). It is also economically insane to enact bad policies because other countries do so. Especially when it is becoming clear that other large agricultural subsidizers (e.g., Japan and the EU) are not exactly thriving, many and varied though their problems may be.

Third, as for the importance of farm supports in maintaining food independence, that’s also nonsense. As I’ve argued ad nauseum, (e.g., here), subsidies aren’t keeping us well-fed: if food abundance depended on government support, we’d see nothing but so-called program crops (soybeans, wheat, corn, cotton, and rice) on supermarket shelves. Judging by the size of my fellow Australians on my last visit home, no-one is starving there despite very little government support for agriculture. By the way, if you want to read some comments from a president who actually knows what he is talking about, read Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s comments in this article, where he calls for lower trade barriers around the world, particularly for food security reasons.

Mr. Romney’s support for the Senate-passed farm bill also is at odds with his statement to the ASA about the importance of open trade. Even putting aside Mr Romney’s typical mercantilist obsession with exports, I wonder if he realizes that the changes proposed in the Senate farm bill would increase the amount of subsidies deemed trade-distorting by the World Trade Organization, putting trade liberalization at risk? U.S. government spending on trade-distorting support, the “worst” kind, is at record lows right now, mainly thanks to higher commodity prices. But even a senior United States Department of Agriculture official admits (paywall) that the proposed changes to farm policy—including a move towards revenue insurance—would likely see that progress eroded:

But Joseph Glauber, chief economist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), said in an interview with Inside U.S. Trade that if either the Senate-passed farm bill or the version approved by the House Agriculture Committee were enacted, that would likely increase the level of U.S. trade-distorting payments.

While stressing that his assessment is preliminary in light of the fact that no legislation has been finalized, Glauber said it is fairly apparent that cutting direct payments and replacing them with either a revenue guarantee program or a price-loss program, as the two legislative proposals envision, would lead to an increase in amber box payments.

In fact, Glauber argued that changing U.S. farm policy along the lines of either of the farm bill proposals could make it more likely that the U.S. exceeds the $7.6 billion cap to which the U.S. informally agreed in the Doha round, especially in those years where commodity prices dip down and subsidy payouts increase.

Pass the farm bill, in other words, and multilateral liberalization efforts get more difficult.

Finally, I note that Mr. Romney also couldn’t resist adding his standard, wrongheaded, and increasingly prominent talking point about “vigorously enforcing” U.S. trade law, and catching cheaters (plenty of blog posts by my colleagues on this topic can be viewed on this blog). I wonder if he realizes that the United States itself has been caught breaking the rules of agricultural trade, and how hypocritical his statements about farm subsidies and trade are in that context? Plenty of damage, and retaliation, has been unleashed because of various ways the U.S. government conducts its affairs in agriculture.

So, in short, there is not much to like in either candidate’s statements, with Mr. Romney deserving special opprobrium because of his professed free-market, limited government principles. But we knew that.

Pages