While the Senate is gearing up to debate its version of the 2012 Farm Bill - which more than 125 farm groups are already urging - the House is moving ahead with its own draft of the measure. There are some significant differences, including the potential House proposal to cut spending on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program by as much as $33 billion over the next 10 years. The Senate version proposes a cut of about $4.4 billion in the same period.
Tuesday, the House Ag Subcommittee on Nutrition and Horticulture held a hearing on nutrition and crop programs, and while the discussion ran a wide range from support for more organic production to a review of SNAP, that $33 billion remains a pretty big sticking point for members.
Joe Baca, D-Calif., and ranking member of the subcommittee issued a statement at the close of the hearing:
"The $33 billion in cuts to federal nutrition programs approved by the Agriculture Committee last month sets an unfortunate precedent that disregards the health and well-being of millions of struggling Americans. As the Committee begins to work in earnest on the 2012 Farm Bill, it is critical that we work to protect our nutrition safety net, promote consumption of healthy fruits and vegetables in schools across all 50 states and ensure that no one in America goes hungry."
Witness testifying at the hearing made the case for SNAP, noting its value when the economy slips - and SNAP participation rises. In his testimony, Ron Haskins, co-director of the Center on Children and Families, Brookings Institution, notes that spending on poor and low-income Americans has "increased enormously." In his testimony, Haskins says that since 1980, spending on 10 means tested programs - of which SNAP is the second largest - has rising by about $500 billion. Spending on SNAP alone has risen from $24.2 billion in 1980 to $75.7 billion in 2011.
Stacy Dean, vice president for food assistance policy at the Center of Budget and Policy Priorities, testified that 46 million low-income Americans use SNAP to afford "a nutritionally adequate diet by providing them with benefits via a debit card that can only be used to purchase food. One in seven Americans is participating in SNAP - a figure that speaks both to the extensive need across our country and to SNAP's important role in addressing it."
Dean points to the rapid response capability of SNAP to help when times turn against people and they need help. An example used was the $1 billion used by 2 million households in 2005 in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The same response occurred again in the wake of spring floods and tornadoes in 2011, and fall a fall hurricane and tropical storm.
One point of contention is that SNAP beneficiaries aren't working, just taking in government benefits. Dean pointed out to the subcommittee that nearly 48% of SNAP households with children had at least one person working.
Dean adds that "claims that cuts to SNAP are justified because the program is growing in unsustainable ways are misplaced." The biggest reason for program growth is the effect of the recession and lagging economy on the economic circumstances of Americans. And Dean pointed to Congressional Budget Office data showing that the deep recession of 2007 to 2009 was the culprit.
Dean predicts in the future that SNAP spending will drop as the economy improves, and expressed concern over the proposed $33 billion cut over the next 10 years. The move could increase poverty in the country, Dean concludes.
In a statement issued at the close of the hearing yesterday, Subcommittee Chair Rep. Jean Schmidt, R-Ohio, pointed to the major rise in the use of SNAP - up 77% since 2007. And her concluding statement points to the pressures involved in the House:
"With soaring deficits and an unfathomable national debt, we must be mindful of this grave fiscal situation. In order for us to reauthorize and craft responsible farm programs, it Is our duty and responsibility to ensure that every dollar spent is a wise dollar spent. Investing wisely in specialty crops and ensuring that nutrition programs are being administered effectively is critical at this time."