What About Food For People? – the US Farm Bill and the Rural Economy
Conservative Republicans in the US House of Representatives remain unconcerned with the needs of the American people as they argue to split the Farm Bill in two. They are trying to separate the parts of the bill relating to nutritional assistance and school lunches from the parts regulating crop insurance, crop subsidies, and conservation, ignoring their close interconnections. Why do Republican Congressmen such as Reps. Eric Cantor and Marlin Stutzman argue that farm and nutritional policy need to be treated as two separate policy areas?
According to statistics released by the USDA, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) program cost $78.5 billion dollars during the fiscal year 2012. That figure is double what the program cost in 2008, at $35.6 billion. This has led some journalists and legislators to maintain that the SNAP program is a “runaway” program, using this language to argue that it be “reigned in”.
The fact is that the number of people enrolled in the program has almost doubled, from 28 million people to 47 million, since the economic crisis of 2008. 42% of those enrolled are children, and 9% are over the age of 60. Historically, the number of people enrolled in the SNAP program had remained around 20 million people, until recently. Republican congressmen blame this increase on fraud and laziness, but testimony delivered in 2012 to Congress by Ron Haskins from the Brookings Center on Children and Families and Budgeting for National Priorities Project demonstrated that increases in SNAP recipients have coincided with rises in unemployment rates.
More fundamentally, the increase in SNAP participation reflects deep changes in the US economy that have been occurring for decades but were sped up by the 2008 crisis. People are finding more work as the economy picks up, but the type of work they find and the wages they earn matter a lot when it comes to nutritional assistance. The majority of the jobs added to the US economy since 2008 have been jobs in the fast food and services industries which provide low0-wages, irregular hours, and no benefits. What is missing from the conversation over food stamps and the farm bill is the fact that people need food stamps not because they are lazy but because their wages do not provide for their well-being. Food stamps have become a welfare policy for employers who profit by not paying their employees a living wage.
The average household income for the bottom 40% of Americans in 2010 was $17,300. This number reflects the amount the bottom 40% earns, and not the amount they need to live. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has created an interesting, if depressing, resource for learning what the cost of living is in the US. The website lists what wage is required to live in counties throughout the US calculated from data collected in 2012. We looked up the estimates for Brooklyn, NY ($43,540 for a household with 2 adults and 1 child) and for Clayton Country, Iowa ($33,945), the rural area where one of our staff members grew up. Both of these numbers are a fortune compared to the actual household incomes of the bottom 40% of Americans.
We are against any cuts to SNAP that would reduce recipient benefits because this would exacerbate the problem of hungry in the US. Furthermore, We are also trying to show that the cost of food assistance programs is directly related to the changed US economy, and the rural economy is a central area of concern.
The U.S. farm economy is not a major employer of people in the US. According to the Environmental Protection Agency less than 1% of Americans list farming as their primary occupation, and only 2% of Americans live on farms. Even though a majority (88%) of farms are small, family farms, large farms account for over 50% of the value produced in the rural economy. These farms primarily produce corn, wheat, soybeans, sugar, and rice which are the most profitable because they are the most subsidized and mechanized crops. Over the years the rural economy has built itself around these subsidies, making them profitable as sources for livestock feed, biofuels, and processed food additives.
In fact, very little of the food produced by the US rural economy is for human consumption. Only 6.3 % of US farmers grow edible vegetables. Most of these crops require lots of manual labor, and it is much cheaper to import vegetables than to pay for farm labor. The shift away from growing food for consumption and towards mechanized single crop production has driven many farmers out of business since the 1930s, and the US economy is no longer providing sustainable employment for people in urban areas either. However, for the first time in US history the number of farms increased in 2012, as farmers markets and CSAs are exploding alongside a strengthening movement for food justice. These are signs that change is possible and that the momentum for change in US agriculture is growing.
So what then should Congress do about the rising costs of SNAP and the farm bill in general. The first thing is to recognize that the rural economy and food assistance are directly connected and not separate policy areas; more people won’t need nutrition assistance if more well-paying jobs were available. Secondly, Congress needs to invest in a new kind of agricultural futur instead of cutting costs. A new agricultural future would involve putting people to work at living wages, growing food for people, not for fuels and livestock. At no point in US history has the economy been transformed without considerable investment by the federal and state governments. Congress should be spending to encourage farmers to grow using sustainable, small-farm methods. If properly adopted, these methods could provide healthy wages and healthy food for people. It could end the safety net that the US government has built for employers who force their employees to rely on food stamps instead of paying livable wages.