Politics of Poverty

4 reasons this Farm Bill is no good

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Haitian relief workers assist with unloading food and water from the US for those affected by hurricanes that struck Haiti. (Photo: US Navy / Wikimedia Commons)

On hunger, trade, and international aid the bill is more than disappointing.

The House of Representatives is considering a new Farm Bill this week.  We’ve been watching carefully because the Farm Bill has many bits of policy that are important to poor people and food security.  This year, the politics of the Farm Bill are a bit different than usual. The Farm Bill that Congress will consider is highly partisan, and was passed through the Agriculture committee on a strictly party-line vote.  That’s a break with history, as the Farm Bill is traditionally a very bipartisan piece of legislation.  The divisions and tension on the Farm Bill usually have more to do with regional interests, commodity growers vying for subsidies, urban v. rural needs, and  environmentalists, nutritionists, and the energy sector all looking for slices of the pie.

But following the pattern of more extreme partisanship in Congress, the current Farm Bill is driven by party and partisan messaging. The result is a bad bill, especially for people living in poverty.  Here are 4 reasons:

#1: The Farm Bill is designed to increase hunger in America.  The bill before Congress makes dramatic cuts to one of the fundamental social safety nets in this country: the “food stamp” program, now known as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).  You have to be pretty poor to qualify for food stamps; and the support is pretty modest – about $160 per person per month for most families. The Farm Bill would further reduce eligibility and force states to experiment with “work requirements” on poor people. These changes are cruel and unproductive, and add to the bureaucracy and cost of the program.

#2: The Farm Bill does nothing to reform the egregious subsidies for big farmers.  While the Republican Farm Bill would cut food stamps for the poorest people in our country, the bill is extremely generous for rich farmers who grow certain crops.  Since there’s no income threshold and there are plenty of millionaires – even billionaires – who get farm subsidies.  And, of course, there’s a zillion games they play to get more subsidies, not mention just breaking the law.  And under this Farm Bill, all of that is pretty much just fine.

#3: The Farm Bill is probably illegal under international trade rules.  The US spent years in trade litigation over large farm subsidies for US cotton growers.  Brazil and other cotton producing countries argued, successfully, that US cotton subsidies create an unfair advantage for US cotton.  After years of slow-moving litigation, the World Trade Organization judges ruled in Brazil’s favor and imposed penalties on the US.  Finally, in 2014 the US agreed to reform the subsidies and settled the case with a final lump sump payment of $300 million. But apparently the lessons of that case have been forgotten, as this Farm Bill would create the old cotton subsidies anew.  And Brazil has announced they will challenge them again.  And they’ll probably win because after all, they’re right.

#4: The Farm Bill wastes taxpayer money on an inefficient international food aid program that could be reformed to feed 4-10 million more people every year; or maybe 17 million. That’s nothing new, actually.  Oxfam and allies pushed hard for food aid reform in the last Farm Bill but narrowly missed on an amendment that would have done away with much of the waste in the program.  The intransigence of the Agriculture committee is baffling, especially when global hunger is actually on the rise.

Thus far, the Farm Bill does not seem to have the votes to pass the House.  That may be its only virtue.

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