President Obama, quite rightly, has been derided as the "food stamp president." While serving in office, the 44th president has presided over continued, massive expansions of the nation's nutrition programs. More people than ever before are on the dole as a result of policies he has created or continued. These programs -- most prominently the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, previously called "food stamps") -- are, by all accounts, costly, poorly run, and, while they do assure that almost everyone gets sufficient calories, actually overdo it and result in high levels of obesity amongst the poor. It's also true, as groups like Americans for Prosperity point out, that federal nutrition programs take up a huge percentage of farm subsidy bills -- 76 to 78 percent depending on which version of farm bill one looks at -- that are currently pending before Congress.
All that said, a sensible, politically viable conservative course of action with regard to farm programs probably can't and shouldn't focus on deep cuts to nutrition programs; instead, it's better -- both politically and for the cause of smaller government -- to focus on the subsidies that Congress continues to hand out to farmers. These, not the nutrition programs, are the place that small government advocates can find real cuts.
While the nutrition programs have all sorts of flaws, they do accomplish a legitimate and longstanding public purpose. Quite simply, there exists a broad social consensus that even the truly shiftless or outcast shouldn't be allowed to starve to death in the midst of plenty. If the market system is to be used to distribute food -- and experiments with collectivized agriculture have, to say the least, failed dismally -- then it follows logically at least some people will be unable to afford food. This function of the state is older and better established than suggestions that the concept that the state should have a role in providing education, healthcare, or old age support to its people. Thus, while there are likely plenty of ways to reform nutrition programs, a growing population probably means that it will be difficult to wring real savings out of them. Yes, there probably are administrative efficiencies to be found but, as James Q. Wilson has so correctly observed, simply changing the way the government does something -- rather than what it does -- has never resulted in a huge savings for the public purse. And the fundamental thrust of modern food programs -- feeding the hungry -- isn't going to change. Reforming these programs, even block granting them to the states, may well be a good idea. But it's probably not going to save a ton of federal cash.
The subsidies provided to farmers are a lot different. As a group, they simply don't need them: since the 1990s, farm family income has been well above the national average and now stands almost $20,000 higher. Proposals before Congress, however, would hand out even more to farmers by providing new "insurance" against market price fluctuations in crops. Even worse, perhaps, some even want to undo Reagan-administration crop insurance accountability (also called "conservation compliance") policies that deny subsidies to farmers who drain wetlands or fail to prevent soil erosion. (Farmers who really want to drain privately-owned wetlands or plant on private stream-banks can still do so, just not with federal help.) And, although a few lonely warriors continue to fight against them, few expect real progress in ending hugely expensive and outdated sugar and milk price control programs that enrich a few farmers while raising almost everyone's grocery prices. (And, thus, making nutrition programs even more expensive.)
Nutrition programs are expensive and they could be run better. But making deep cuts is inadvisable and politically unwise. On the other hand, farmer-side subsidies can and should be cut very deeply. Congress should end many existing programs and avoid creating any new ones. Those that continue should have smartly designed strings like crop insurance accountability attached to them. Farm subsidies aren't a huge percentage of the budget but, they are a huge waste.
Follow Eli Lehrer on Twitter: www.twitter.com/elilehrerdc