The 'farm bill' is costing Americans billions

COMMENTARY Agriculture

The 'farm bill' is costing Americans billions

Nov 4th, 2013 3 min read

Commentary By

Daren Bakst

Research Fellow in Agricultural Policy

Rachel Sheffield

Former Policy Analyst, DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society, The Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity

The "farm bill"? Hardly. What the House and Senate are working on now, as they iron out the differences between their respective versions of this legislation, has little to do with agriculture. And it's proving very costly for every American.

Based on projected costs, these massive bills are about $150 billion more expensive than the Obama stimulus bill. And about 80 percent of the farm bill costs support the food stamp program. The bill should really be called the "food stamp bill."

Food stamps cost taxpayers roughly $80 billion in 2012, twice what it cost in 2008. The recession is partly to blame, but it's only part of the problem. Even before the recession, food stamp spending doubled between 2000 and 2007.

There have been hysterical claims about the House's proposal to rein in runaway spending on food stamps. Some context is needed. Instead of a projected $76 billion annual price tag if the program stays the same, the House would spend $72 billion. Food stamp spending would still be almost double what it was in 2007.

Meanwhile, the Senate bill would cut a grand total of one half of 1 percent. This is about $400 million a year, which doesn't even compare to the $2.7 billion in improper payments made in 2012.

But much more important than the spending on food stamps is how it affects people. The idea of food stamps as a program to help those truly in need with nowhere else to turn is being undermined by some existing policies.

For example, states are allowed to bypass asset tests for applicants, meaning even households with substantial savings in the bank could receive food stamps. Further, more than half of food stamp households containing an able-bodied adult perform zero hours of work during the month. This is the case even in good economic times.

The House bill takes steps in the right direction to end policies that have led to more Americans becoming dependent on food stamps. Participation is at record levels: the number of food stamp participants is greater than the population of 24 states combined.

The House bill also encourages work for able-bodied adults. But it doesn't go far enough, only making it optional for states to implement a work requirement.

In addition to food stamps, the farm bill is composed of agriculture programs - imagine that. Farming is a prosperous business and a sophisticated and innovative industry. Net farm income is at record highs. The average farm household makes far more than its non-farm counterparts: $87,278, compared with $69,677, an incredible 25 percent difference, and this while the economy is struggling.

Yet Congress continues to push centrally planned policies that assume farmers won't succeed without government intervention and handouts. The list of egregious agriculture programs is seemingly endless.

For example, the sugar program intentionally limits the amount of sugar that can be sold and imposes import restrictions, thereby driving up food prices. Ironically, as Congress debates funding for food stamps to help the poor pay for food, Congress would continue policies that make food more expensive.

The Market Access Program forces taxpayers to spend around $200 million a year to help multinational companies and trade associations with their overseas marketing efforts. While families struggle to make ends meet, their hard-earned tax dollars are helping to fund "important" endeavors such as promoting organic hair products for dogs and hosting international wine tastings.

Both the House and Senate would create new programs that would cover even minor losses suffered by farmers, removing any pretense that farm programs are designed to serve as a safety net.

At a time of record deficits, the House and Senate do little to rein in agriculture spending. In fact, President Barack Obama's budget proposal would cut nearly three times more than the House and Senate bills.

There's a lot riding on these farm bills. There are few pieces of legislation that affect Americans in such a direct manner; after all, everybody has to eat. The success of the food stamp program should be measured not by how many people are on the food stamp rolls, but by how many people have been empowered to leave the rolls.

Shouldn't agriculture policy protect the interests of consumers and taxpayers, while freeing up farmers and ranchers to meet our agriculture needs?

 - Daren Bakst is a research fellow in agricultural policy in the Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies and Rachel Sheffield is a policy analyst in the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation.

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Originally distributed by the McClatchy-Tribune wire service