THE BLOG

Rural America, Poverty, and Why the Farm Bill Matters

07/23/2013 12:20 pm 12:20:59 | Updated Sep 22, 2013

Last week, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed a farm bill reauthorization that broke with a rare bipartisan tradition of the past five decades. Republicans refused to support nutrition assistance, something that has had broad bipartisan support in the past. Since 1977, Democrats and Republicans have joined together to pass complete and bipartisan legislation that includes funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

The truth is, millions of American families rely on the nutrition assistance benefits to ensure that they have enough to eat each and every day, with 72 percent of those households including families with children.

I know firsthand the importance of these programs to the children who rely on them -- I used to be one of them.

I grew up in rural North Carolina. I have seen the impact that America's farmers have on our economy and our culture. And as someone whose family has benefited from nutrition assistance in the past, I understand on a personal level the importance of the farm bill.

My state is a melting pot, just like our great nation. From the Great Smoky Mountains to the Atlantic shore and every mile in between, North Carolinians reflect the values that make America strong -- hard work, dedication to our communities, and a sense of pride in what we do.

Yet it feels like House Republican leaders in Washington, who claim to hold these same values, have turned their backs on rural communities and American families.

Historically, the farm bill has set important federal agriculture policy and provided nutrition funding for needy families. But not if the GOP-led House of Representatives have anything to do with it.

Americans across the country rely on the farm bill to stimulate agricultural growth and to (literally) put food on America's tables. But what some forget is that the farm bill isn't just about farms; it's not just about rural Americans, it's about the nearly 50 million Americans who rely on the nutrition title, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), to feed their families -- the title that was cut from the bill House Republicans passed last week. And it wasn't the only nutrition program cut. Republicans also slashed the Emergency Food Assistance Program and other nutrition investments for children, seniors, and Native Americans.

Nutrition assistance historically constitutes around 80 percent of the funding in the farm bill. According to the Seattle Times, in order to qualify for nutrition assistance, "households must earn less than 130 percent of the federal poverty guideline and have assets of less than $2,000. For a family of four, this would mean an annual income of less than $31,321." These are families who are less concerned with partisan politics than they are about ensuring that they and their loved ones have enough to eat. In my home state, the average monthly benefit per person is about $120. That may not seem like much to Republican leaders on the Hill, but for so many Americans, it makes all the difference.

It makes a difference to women, who make up 56 percent of those who benefit from this nutrition title. It would also be a hard void to fill for America's seniors, who make up almost 16 percent of nutrition assistance participants. These numbers represent real people who could face real hunger. They paint the picture of a working mother of two, who doesn't have enough food to feed both her children and herself at dinner -- so she goes without. These numbers are a disabled senior on a fixed income, who has no means to fill the void if this assistance isn't available anymore.

In 2012, more than a half-million of North Carolina's households participated in nutrition assistance programs. In just one rural, poverty-stricken Southeast North Carolina county, 33 percent of children and families needed food assistance. House Republicans are taking the food out of the mouths of those who need it most. If they don't act soon to fix this mistake, food prices will not only increase for needy families, but for all Americans, as current policies will expire and farm provisions will revert to their 1949 iteration -- the last time Congress enacted permanent farm law.

On June 10, the Senate passed a real farm bill. Under the leadership of Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the Senate passed a bill that would expand taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance, fund nutrition assistance, and give stable support to rural Americans and working families. But once again, Republicans have chosen partisan politics over the American people. Our country needs leaders who will prioritize a healthy and economically secure future. The GOP-version of the farm bill hurts rural communities. It hurts children, working women, seniors, the disabled. It increases hunger in this country. This bill hurts America.

Republican leaders should remember that farmers, working families, and our middle class -- as well as those who aspire to join it -- are not only the backbone of our economy and our great country, but also the voters who will remember those who stood up for them, and those who didn't, when they cast their ballot next November.