Tag: farm bill

It’s Time to Put the Farm Bill Out to Pasture

Some Americans may be surprised to learn that agriculture in their country is in large part based on a five-year plan. Most commonly referred to as the farm bill, it is up for renewal this year and—just like in years past—is likely to produce a legislative morass in which the primary beneficiaries are lobbyists and the business interests they serve. The following excerpt from a recent article in The New Yorker helps to illustrate the madness:

When milk prices bottomed out in the summer of 2016, Robin and David Fitch didn’t know how they could continue. Their four-hundred-and-seventy-acre dairy farm, in West Winfield, New York—a four-hour drive north of Manhattan—supported about a hundred and seventy milk cows. Sixteen years earlier, when they had married and started farming together, a herd that size would have been more than enough to keep them afloat. But milk prices kept falling that summer, eventually hitting fourteen dollars per hundredweight, down from twenty-five in 2014. The Fitches’ income took a nearly fifty-per-cent hit, while the debt they incurred from fuel costs, rising interest rates, and other expenses grew. The day came when they had to tell their two children that they might be forced to sell the farm. “My fourteen-year-old was in tears,” Robin recalled. “For the farmer, it means losing everything they have worked for their entire life—their land, their home, everything. It’s gone.”

The Fitches were not alone in their struggles. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that, between 2013 and 2016, net farm income fell by half, the largest three-year drop since the Great Depression. Some forty-two thousand farms folded during the downturn, and small and medium-sized operations, such as the Fitches’, proved particularly vulnerable. Now, with commodity prices still low and farm debt predicted to reach record highs, the nonprofit organization Farm Aid has warned that, if the market doesn’t recover soon, the country could see its highest rate of farm closures since the nineteen-eighties. Newsweek estimates that, at the peak of that crisis, two hundred and fifty farms closed every hour.

Many American farmers are looking to Donald Trump for relief. He was, after all, their preferred candidate for President, winning sixty-two per cent of the rural vote in 2016. “Farmers built this country, and I was hopeful that he was going to see that and step up to the plate for us,” Robin Fitch told me. The President will soon have the chance to do just that, as Congress readies the next version of the farm bill, the single most important piece of legislation for the nation’s food growers. First conceived during the Depression, the bill has since become a fixture of American policy-making, updated and renewed and haggled over every five years or so. The 2018 bill, which is due in the coming months and is expected to cost around nine hundred billion dollars over a decade, promises to be one of the most consequential ever. This year, even more than in the past, farmers such as the Fitches face an existential question: Will Washington come to their rescue, or will it let them disappear?

The farm bill’s unassuming name fails to capture its effect on American life. Besides providing crop subsidies, establishing pricing structures, and regulating farming practices, it allocates funds for disaster relief, school-lunch programs, and wildlife conservation. Some eighty per cent of the bill’s budget goes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (snap), formerly known as food stamps. “At one point, I started to catalogue the number of programs that were covered in the farm bill, and I gave up after a hundred,” Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University, told me recently. “And every single one of those programs has a lobbying force behind it or it wouldn’t be there. And that’s just the farm programs!”

As the Fitches’ experience suggests, past farm bills have tended to benefit large operations over small and medium-size ones, which still account for ninety-seven per cent of all working farms in the United States. According to the Environmental Working Group, a D.C.-based nonprofit, the top ten per cent of wealthiest farms received seventy-seven per cent of commodity subsidies between 1995 and 2016. Roughly the same is true of crop insurance, currently the largest component of the farm bill behind snap. That’s where the real money is, Nestle told me. “What the insurance programs do is provide an incentive to grow as much food as you possibly can, because you know that the price is going to be guaranteed,” she said. The certainty of payment, backed by U.S. taxpayers, encourages big farms to get bigger, take risks, and then claim the insurance payouts if the crops fail to yield.

Each one of these paragraphs helps highlight at least one flaw with the farm bill or perceptions of the agriculture sector.

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.

 

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