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Families on food stamps would suffer while farms get fat

Bills inching through the House and Senate would hack away at the food stamp program, yet protect — or even expand — farm subsidies.

June 14, 2013|Michael Hiltzik
  • From 1995 through 2012, according to USDA figures compiled by the Washington-based Environmental Working Group, the farm that Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale) co-owns with other family members has collected $5.1 million in government crop subsidies. Above, LaMalfa, left, speaks with Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.) on Capitol Hill last month. At center is an unidentified aide.
From 1995 through 2012, according to USDA figures compiled by the Washington-based… (J. Scott Applewhite, AP )

As a member of Congress, Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale) is proud to stand up for the principles of limited government and individual responsibility.

The first-term congressman expresses skepticism about such safety-net programs as food stamps, regarding them as the handiwork of an "oppressive" government that snatches wages from the hands of working people. Helping the poor is better left to individuals and churches, he said at a recent committee hearing in Washington, because then "it comes from the heart, not from a badge or from a mandate."

As a rice farmer from California's fertile Central Valley, however, this same Doug LaMalfa has done pretty well by the "oppressive" federal government. From 1995 through 2012, according to USDA figures compiled by the Washington-based Environmental Working Group, the farm he co-owns with other family members has collected $5.1 million in government crop subsidies.

LaMalfa made his remarks during the House Agriculture Committee's meeting last month on a massive farm bill. The measure has been kicking around Capitol Hill since last year but may finally be slouching toward enactment, with the House and Senate both hard at work on similar, if not identical, versions.

What makes this process especially worth watching is that the farm bill is a curious hybrid — it covers both the food stamp program, which is one of the nation's most important economic safety-net programs, and farm subsidies, which are an equally important source of corporate welfare. If you keep your eyes open, you'll be able to witness Congress hack away at the former while protecting — or even expanding as much as fourfold — the latter.

In the name of cutting $20 billion from the food stamp program over 10 years, the House bill would throw almost 2 million recipients off the food stamp rolls, as estimated by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Most of them are seniors or members of low-income working families with children. More than 200,000 children would lose their eligibility for free school meals. By LaMalfa's estimate, these are "modest changes" aimed at reform, but of course he and his family don't have to worry about being on the edge of destitution. (The Senate version would cut only $4 billion, which is why it's not favored in the House.)

LaMalfa's words reflected a familiar theme in congressional debate, which is that the recipients of payouts like farm subsidies are honest, hardworking folks while those getting food stamps (or other low-income relief) should be grateful at the help they get and shut up otherwise. After all, the committee is proposing merely to "retract just a little bit of this spending over something that's grown exponentially in the last three or four years," he said of the food stamp program.

It's proper to consider here why the food stamp program, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, has grown exponentially in recent years. Enrollment rose by 70% from 2007 through 2011, when it reached about 45 million, according to the Congressional Budget Office. That's about as shocking as finding a prize in your Cracker Jack box, since SNAP enrollments always track unemployment rates, though with a lag of a couple of years. Now that unemployment is finally coming down, the CBO expects food stamp enrollments to start falling next year.

The program's annual expense, which more than doubled to $72 billion between 2007 and 2011, also shot up because the stimulus bill increased benefits by nearly 14%. The increase is scheduled to expire in November, reducing benefits for a typical family of three by about $20 to $25 a month. That doesn't sound like much to you? The average benefit today is $134 a month per person. Do the math: That works out to $1.48 per meal.

The House and Senate bills haven't taken aim at the per-person benefits. But what they're plotting is more insidious. They're targeting the eligibility process, with the aim of making it harder to enroll. The goal is to eliminate something called categorical eligibility. This eligibility allows states, which administer SNAP, to deem eligible those who already receive assistance from another means-tested federal program, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF.

The goal of this Clinton-era change was to cut paperwork costs. SNAP's critics talk as though it opened a huge loophole, allowing people to qualify with a wink, sometimes when they had substantial private assets. But SNAP experts say it does nothing of the kind. In 2011, only 2% of SNAP households had disposable income above the poverty line. For the most part, their other assets were minimal or nonexistent.

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