U.S. Rep. Marlin Stutzman’s vote against the farm bill put him in unusual company last week. But the Democratic no votes were aimed at protecting what the 3rd District Republican congressman is ready to cut loose. Separating the food-assistance program from farm policy threatens to end a hallmark of congressional compromise and leave struggling families and children without a voice.
Senators George McGovern and Robert Dole – statesmen both – provided the bipartisan leadership to improve the food stamp program in 1977, creating the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The rural-urban coalition backing farm policy proved not just a convenience but a smart way to ensure the needs of the nation’s food producers were aligned with its consumers most in need.
No one can fully estimate the contributions of these food assistance programs as investments in the well-being and security of American families, McGovern, a South Dakota Democrat, wrote in 2004.
Dole, a Kansas Republican, protected their work when an effort was made to turn over the administration of food stamps to the states in the early 1980s. As Senate Finance Committee chairman, he spiked the effort. In 2008, the former senators linked arms to walk to the podium and accept the World Food Prize.
Stutzman, a Howe Republican who this year gave up his seat on the House Agriculture Committee for the Financial Services Committee, has filed amendments to pull food-stamp provisions out of the farm bill.
I often heard about the farm bill growing up, and I know how important it is for farmers in my congressional district in northeast Indiana as well as around the country, he told the House Rules Committee. I believe we need a farm bill, but we need that farm bill to be responsible.
I also believe in helping those who can’t help themselves, and that means making sure those who live in poverty in this country are fed. But for too long this Congress has combined farm policy and nutrition policy, and what we have now is a bill that spends $740 billion on food stamps and $200 billion on farm policy.
SNAP is the federal program administered by the Food and Nutrition Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with distribution through the states. In 2012, it served nearly 47 million people at a cost of $78.4 billion. The cost has more than doubled since 2008, but that shouldn’t be surprising given the effects of the Great Recession and a sputtering recovery of low-wage jobs.
SNAP benefits are hardly generous. The monthly benefit for a recipient in Allen County averages out to about $4.38 a day in a 30-day month.
Yes, there are cases of fraud – as with any large government program – but those must and can be addressed whether or not SNAP remains with the farm bill.
The farm-assistance programs will continue to enjoy the support of powerful lobbying interests, but low-income Americans who depend on the safety net for survival are at risk if the food stamp program is separated.
Nearly two-thirds of SNAP recipients are children, the elderly or those with disabilities. The majority do not receive cash welfare benefits, and many have jobs – more than 30 percent of SNAP households had earnings in 2011.
Rather than abandon one constituency to address the needs of another, Stutzman and his colleagues must demonstrate the leadership that allowed McGovern and Dole to work together for all.