Aug. 1, 2005 – Although an extra dollarâ€™s worth of food may not add much to a meal, for millions of American families, it makes the difference between going hungry and scraping by. But because the average dollar-per-meal doled out each day in food stamps takes up a sizable chunk of the federal budget, Congress is now considering cuts to the program, even as the number of people needing assistance grows.
The 2006 budget reconciliation plan gives Congress about six weeks to slash $3 billion from agricultural programs over the next five years.
The two major candidates for cutbacks are the food stamp program â€“ which under the latest budget bill, prior to cuts, would require an estimated $33 to $35 billion per year â€“ and agricultural commodity subsidies, which would cost about half that much, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
While farm industry lobby groups are pushing legislators to protect the subsidies that feed some of the countryâ€™s largest agribusinesses, anti-hunger organizations are struggling to preserve funding for the governmentâ€™s flagship nutrition program.
A Fair Share for Food Stamps?
According to US Department of Agriculture (USDA) statistics, food stamps currently provide nourishment to over 25 million people nationwide, and recent growth in participation shows no signs of slowing. Of the households receiving benefits each month, distributed through an electronic coupon system, nearly nine in ten contain children, elderly, or disabled people, and same the proportion lives in poverty.
Even a minor economic mishap could tip a household into food insecurity, said Rosenbaum.
"Thereâ€™s no question from our standpoint that food stamps is the most critical supplemental nutrition program that is available to poor people," said Jon Janowski, director of advocacy with the Wisconsin-based organization Hunger Task Force (HTF).
Dorothy Rosenbaum, a nutrition policy analyst with the progressive think tank Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), noted that currently the program provides, on average, less than $90 per individual per month.
Even a minor economic mishap could tip a household into food insecurity, said Rosenbaum. "If they need car repairs, or their heating bill comes in higher than what they were expecting," she said, "they get to the end of the month, and they run out of food. â€¦ Thereâ€™s just not a lot of give there for people to have those resources taken out of their family budget."
Tensions over the potential cuts have centered on the House Agriculture Committee, where Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Virginia) has not disclosed detailed plans for cuts. In the past, while advocating policies to benefit farm interests, he has tried to hem in food stamp spending by restricting benefits for immigrants and campaigning against what he called loopholes in the program.
Aligning with Rep. Goodlatteâ€™s efforts to tighten funding for food stamps, some farm industry groups suggest the program is eating more than its fair share of the budget.
As of March 2005, food stamp participation nationwide had risen by roughly 8 million in five years.
In its 2005 legislative agenda, the American Farm Bureau, a leading agricultural federation, called for "a complete re-evaluation of the food stamp program by the Congress." The group, which declined to comment for this story, proposed several measures to curb food stamp spending, including a cap on total spending, as opposed to payments that respond to overall need. They also called for stricter regulations to prevent fraud.
In recent interviews with The NewStandard, nutrition policy advocates and House agriculture committee staff reported that agriculture lobbyists are pressing committee members to implement "proportional" cuts, which mirror the overall distribution of funding in the agriculture budget.
Food stamp expenditures account for more than half of the funding under the jurisdiction of the House Agriculture Committee, and about two-thirds of the funding under the Senate committee.
Critics of this plan say that when it comes to the issue of feeding some of societyâ€™s neediest members, what is "proportional" is not necessarily fair.
Citing recent statistical evidence of improved program efficiency and sharp reductions in fraud, CBPP and other supporters of food stamps warn that the program has little fat to burn. The most likely way to reduce spending, they say, would be to limit payments or restrict eligibility for certain groups.
"Weâ€™re not aware of any way that they could make cuts of any sortâ€¦ and not have it be harmful to current recipients," said Ellen Vollinger, food stamp program director of the Food Research and Action Center, a national anti-hunger group.
Although agriculture lobby groups argue that federal subsidies are crucial market support for the farm sector, proponents of food stamps like the CBPP counter that agricultural subsidy programs currently do not provide the social benefits they are intended for, and should not take priority over food stamps.
The public interest organization Environmental Working Group pointed out that the majority of US farmers, according to government statistics, receive no subsidies, while the largest awards are concentrated among a handful of major farm corporations.
Some advocates for the rural sector have generally criticized federal farm policy for favoring big business, and have called for broad market-based reforms to promote farm self-sufficiency, rather than reliance on subsidization.
The National Family Farm Coalition, representing farm communities across the country, argued in its 2006 budget analysis that under the current system of supports for the agricultural market, "Corporate agribusiness remains the winners at the expense of family farmers and taxpayers."
Limited Benefits Chase Exploding Needs
Advocacy organizations and progressive analysts say that any future cuts to food stamps would deepen the wounds left over from the 1996 welfare reform law, which gutted the program by approximately $28 billion over six years and rolled back benefits for immigrants and childless adults. Congress has restored only about a third of these cuts, according to the CBPP, in response to public pressure and evidence of unmet needs.
Recent USDA reports indicate that an estimated12.6 million American households, or about 11 percent, have trouble ensuring an adequate food supply -- a jump of more than 2 million households from 1999.
As of March 2005, food stamp participation nationwide had risen by roughly 8 million in five years. Moreover, USDA studies indicate that only about half of the eligible population accesses food stamp benefits, often because people are unaware that they qualify.
According to Janowski of HTF, in Wisconsin, "participation in the food stamp program has just exploded" to nearly 350,000 people.
Amid economic instability and increasingly scarce public resources, he noted, "Thereâ€™s a lot of people struggling â€¦ due to job losses, due to high healthcare costs, due to increasing childcare costs, those kind of things that are happening all over the country."
Advocates Say Food Stamps Feed Economic Growth
Some farm sector groups are hoping for a budget compromise that would ultimately protect both farmers and food stamp recipients. Emily Eisenberg, a spokesperson for the family farm association National Farmers Union, said that the group opposes food stamp cuts.
"We worked to protect the farm safety net and the [food stamp] program in the 2002 farm bill," she added, referring to legislative package that strengthened funding streams for both nutrition and agriculture support programs.
While the ongoing debate in Congress suggests that farm priorities are at odds with nutrition assistance, anti-hunger groups stress that the food stamp program does not operate at the expense of the interests of farmers.
The USDA estimates that a $5 billion increase in food stamp spending would generate 8,800 farm and food sector jobs and stimulate over $9 billion in overall economic activity.
Heather Fenney, California organizer of the Community Food Security Coalition, which works to promote local farms and food sustainability, argued that if Congress lets the budget axe fall on food stamps, both the poor and domestic farmers would suffer.
She said that in contrast to a subsidy system that mainly benefits multinational agribusinesses, the food stamp program, which boosts purchasing power in community-based markets, "is a way of putting those federal dollars into the regional, local and state food economies."