A five-year farm bill made it out of Congress and onto President Obama’s desk this week, more than two years after discussions began to recast nutrition and agricultural policy. The bill is being hailed as a bipartisan achievement, offering compromises enough to garner support in a sharply divided Congress and the president’s signature. The applause is deserved to the extent that many provisions, such as a pilot program to promote the purchase of locally grown produce, new labeling requirements for meat and poultry and better managed soil conservation programs, improve health and economic efficiency.
But as compromises go, the farm bill splits the difference, in this case at the expense of the hungry poor. It also misses an opportunity (again) to alter in any substantial way the generosity toward corporate and wealthier farmers in the nation’s agricultural policies.
The bill stalled primarily over disagreements on trimming the $80 billion-a-year Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, previously called food stamps. In separate bills last year, the Senate proposed $4 billion in cuts over 10 years. The House offered a stand-alone food bill with a Draconian $40 billion cut. The compromise is $8 billion in cuts the next decade, which would reduce food assistance to 850,000 of the nation’s poorest households by an average $90 a month.
With regard to farm subsidies, the compromise bill delivers less than it might have. It has been clear for years that the policy of paying subsidies to farmers whether they farmed or not is misdirected spending, padding incomes for wealthy farmers. The bill rightly cancels the direct subsidy program, redirecting the savings into a new crop insurance program that would pay out when farmers experience losses. The disappointment is that far from curtailing the costly subsidies, the bill preserves, and in some instances increases, subsidies to a host of interests, among them rice, peanut and catfish farmers.
The farm bill is projected to reduce spending by about $17 billion in 10 years. Half of that is doubtful, given the room to maneuver in crop subsidies. What is certain? The disappointing reduction in food assistance, a safety-net program that has ballooned of necessity in hard times.