America is emerging from a financial calamity that claimed millions of jobs. Hundreds of thousands of families struggle every day just to feed their kids. The tenuous economy has increased pressure on the government to reduce spending and rein in the mounting federal deficit. But not everyone is feeling the pain. As my colleague David DeGennaro recently pointed out, US agriculture hit a minor pothole in 2009 but came roaring back in 2010. Federal projections indicate that farm income may hit a new peak again this year.
So as budget cutters look for places to trim spending in the farm bill, the lavish direct payments made to the wealthiest growers, even in these very good times for farming, seem to us like a good place to start.
But Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, thinks a better place to find cuts is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, better known as food stamps.
In a call to the annual meeting of the Crop Insurance Research Bureau in Indian Wells, Calif., Roberts noted the presidential debt commission report, which proposed cuts to many programs including farm subsidies, did not recommend cutting nutrition programs.
"They are picking what they call farm subsidies rather than look at the total agriculture budget," Roberts said.
Missouri's Roy Blunt - the new senior Republican on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on agriculture - agreed with Roberts on cutting food stamps.
"Are there better ways to deliver the food assistance programs without assuming that they just are untouchable and we'll just look at the 25 percent that impacts direct payments and farm families and rural communities and cut that and take everything out of that?" Blunt offers.
Blunt says direct payments are lower now because of higher commodity prices and he advocates keeping programs in place that encourage farmers to continue to compete in the marketplace.
It's too bad that Sen. Blunt can't get his facts straight. Direct payments are not affected by commodity prices. The very reason why direct payments are so egregious is that they are fixed and automatic and go out regardless of need, in good times and in bad. It is only other farm subsidy programs -- such as counter cyclical and loan deficiency payments -- that have been paying less because of higher commodity prices. But any savings from these two programs have been wiped out by the exploding cost of the heavily subsidized crop insurance program.
One of the best lobbyists in the business, the American Farm Bureau's Mary Kay Thatcher, wisely offered no endorsement of the idea of cutting food stamps. She also touched on factors that should give pause to any lawmaker who believes that wealthy agribusinesses and the industrial food system need government support ahead of the hungry.
Anti-hunger advocates are going to remind the public that unemployment remains at more than 9 percent, Thatcher said, and 43 million people -- one in seven Americans -- are on food stamps. Additionally, she said, one of every eight Americans is lining up at food banks.
She noted a future increase in the food stamp budget that was in the economic stimulus package was cut twice this year when Congress decided to pay teachers' salaries and pass the child nutrition bill. She also recalled that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has said that food stamps help many millions of people, while farm subsidies go to about 1 million people.
"If you think we can prevail against the nutrition community in the upcoming debate, think again," Thatcher said.
Since Roberts and Blunt seem bent on ignoring Thatcher's sound advice, it's worth it to take a closer look at the numbers for Kansas and Missouri.
According to the US Department of Agriculture, there were 44,540 subsidized farms in Kansas in 2009 and the average monthly food stamp enrollment was 219,265 people. The average yearly benefit for food stamp households was $3,024. The average yearly federal subsidy for the largest farms, those in the top 10 percent was $25,834 - with those top 10% of mega farms collecting 69% of all subsidies.
The USDA numbers tell a similar story in Missouri. The state had 45,360 subsidized farms in 2009 and 800,909 food stamp recipients. The average yearly benefit for food stamp households was $3,156. The average yearly federal subsidy for the top 10 percent of farms was $21,132.
Wondering why these senators kowtow to the ag lobby and protect lavish direct payments to farmers in a booming agriculture sector when a far larger number of their constituents benefit from food stamps?
According to Open Secrets, over his career Blunt has received $1,347,853 in campaign contributions from agribusiness. Senator Roberts? He's pulled in a tidy $1,758,728 in agribusiness-related campaign support.
Everyone agrees that America's farmers are critical both to feeding us and to the overall economy. They face many challenges, including unpredictable weather and market forces beyond their control. However, 62 percent of farmers face these challenges without collecting direct subsidies.
For 43 million Americans, however, foods stamps are often the only thing between them and a table full of hungry kids.