Why hold US nutrition aid hostage to farm subsidies?

The US House’s surprise defeat of a renewed version of the so-called farm bill was widely seen as a sign of congressional dysfunction — but it was a blessing in disguise.

Historically, the bill has won broad support due to its combination of food stamps, which appeal to urban lawmakers, and farm subsidies favored by rural ones. However, this latest proposed iteration — which slashed $20.5 billion from federal nutrition programs while increasing subsidies and cost protections for farmers — was killed by an unlikely alliance of Democrats horrified by the prospect of 2 million Americans losing government aid and conservative Republicans who didn’t think the cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program went deep enough.

Many lawmakers had expected that, once the bill was reconciled with the Senate’s version, the cuts to nutrition programs would be scaled back. But even the Senate version chops an unnecessary $4 billion from SNAP.


Congress should take the opportunity created by the failure of the House bill to finally separate farm subsidies from food stamps.

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The farm bill is a misnomer for legislation that allocates 80 percent of its funds to federal nutrition programs. But food stamps and farm subsidies have been linked for longer than most realize. The first farm bill — passed in 1933 to help small farmowners struggling during the Great Depression — included a nutrition program. Later, the Food Stamp Act of 1964 banned using the stamps to buy imported foods as a way of encouraging growth in the agricultural sector. The modern bill is a result of savvy political maneuvering that tied these two policies together as a way of convincing urban-based legislators to back farm subsidies. However, in the current political climate, the combination of nutrition and farm programs in the same bill makes it difficult to critically examine either — especially if the debate about SNAP’s efficacy is tied to the lobbying interests of major agribusinesses fighting to keep farm subsides intact.

Almost 50 million Americans — 43 percent of whom are children — receive nutrition assistance from the government, and the dollars that needy recipients spend cycle through the economy quickly. On the other hand, most of the agricultural entitlements included in the bill directly benefit large agribusinesses. In 2010, 10 percent of farmers received 75 percent of the money allocated to the agricultural sector, often in the form of direct payments that have little relation to the productivity or sustainability of farming practices. Programs designed to help individual farmers who work their own land — such as insurance programs that provide a safety net in case of drought — in practice tend to favor large-scale farm corporations as well. Last year, the smallest 80 percent of farmers only received an average $5,000 of government aid, compared to the millions received by larger ones.

Lawmakers who are mindful of the need for budget cuts should focus their indignation on wasteful agricultural subsidies that provide scant aid to the people they were designed to help. The best way to do that is to finally separate farm subsidies and nutritional programs, and let them stand on their own merits.