The 2018 Farm Bill will cost US taxpayers around $867 over the next ten years. The amount sounds astronomical, but the Farm Bill is not just another spending bill. It is a major piece of legislation with an oversized impact. In many respects, the 2018 reauthorization for the Great Depression-era legislation is essentially a continuation of the status quo. There is, of course, a great deal of buzz surrounding provisions that legalize the production of hemp containing less than 0.3% THC. It is a long overdue change to an unnecessarily broad attempt to regulate controlled substances. The Farm Bill also includes funding for various public works projects. The mainstay of the 2018 Farm Bill, however, continues to be subsidies for farmers and food subsidies for poor Americans. The fact that few Republican-proposed reforms made it into the final bill is a major victory for those who rely on these subsidies, but the five-year reauthorization of the Farm Bill is yet another missed opportunity to address major economic issues.
Approximately 80% of the funds allocated by the Farm Bill go to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. SNAP, commonly known as Food Stamps, provides low-income families with funds they can use to purchase groceries. Although SNAP beneficiaries who work already qualify for greater benefits than those who do not, Republicans wanted to create a work requirement for SNAP recipients. While many SNAP beneficiaries already do work, the change would have limited access to Food Stamps. It would have resulted in more than a million adults losing their SNAP benefits while increasing the cost of the program without creating new opportunities for recipients. The idea behind the work requirement was to encourage recipients to find jobs. This would, in turn, allow them to increase their incomes as they progressed in their careers, thus eliminating the need for Food Stamps, or at least goes the Republican theory. Participation rates in SNAP have been dropping as the economy has been improving, just as they rose as the economy weakened. These changes are, however, the consequences, not causes, of the economic conditions that make the poor dependent on subsidies.
Perpetual dependence on social welfare programs is a personal hardship and tragedy for those who survive in a modern world on the generosity of taxpayers. Not only does their reliance on government handouts and lack of participation in the economy tax the economy, the public welfare system sustains the poor in a state of near-destitution. Instead of capitalizing on their own potential and reaping the personal freedom that comes with financial security, those who rely on public welfare are imprisoned in a perpetual state of personal stagnation. Whether working or not, any need to make up a prolonged financial deficit with public or private support is unsustainable. The existence of social welfare programs and charities do not, however, create the need for these things. Widespread and prolonged need is a symptom of economic dysfunction. Instead of embracing lessons learned from past reform efforts, including the 1994 reform effort which had the unintended consequence of solidifying the poverty of the poorest and most vulnerable of Americans, retaining effective solutions from the past, such as transportation assistance, and deriving new solutions by actually thinking about the real problem, Republicans have transformed the theme of the 1990’s anti-welfare campaign into a policy.
“Get a job” has become the basis for work requirement proposals on a number of social welfare programs, including SNAP benefits. With the unemployment rate under 4% and a majority of able-bodied adult recipients of programs like SNAP already working, getting a job is not the problem nor the solution. What the debates over income inequality and minimum wage reveal is that the problem is a lack of sufficient income and a lack of sufficient pay. Work requirements cannot fix these issues. An improving economy can help, yet there is no guarantee the poor will see a great enough benefit to overcome their dependence on others. Although the Right seems to have made a collective decision to turn a blind eye to the obvious problem that needs solved, their superficial approach to welfare reform has more to do with a collective unwillingness to admit they have no interest in solving poverty. Conservatives may like to promote themselves as the moral Right, but their libertarian-leaning economic theory is purely social Darwinism, complete with the cruelty of survival of the fittest. Those who have pushed oversimplified, punitive social welfare reforms do not truly want to confront poverty.
With that said, the 20% of the Farm Bill that provides farmers with subsidies may well be the most important aspect of the legislation despite the small price tag. Intended to secure American agriculture and the lifestyle of small farmers, the greatest beneficiaries of these subsidies are actually millionaires and billionaires whose businesses are not dependent on these subsidies. Not only are these subsidies being abused, they are distorting the food economy. Heavy corn and rice subsidies, for example, encourage farmers to grow more of these crops at the expense of others. Where corn is a calorie-dense, yet nutrient-deficit food, rice requires a great deal of water to grow. Subsidies make corn so profitable that farmers and food manufactures are encouraged to use as much corn as possible in as many products as possible. The same is true of rice, but rice also highlights another issue. Certain crops grown best in certain environments. Rice, for example, should not be grown in drought-prone regions, yet subsidies make it cost-effective to grow crops like rice in drought-prone regions, such as Texas, with the aid of technology. By discouraging the production of diverse crops, subsidies undermine the resilience of the agricultural industry. Proper subsidies would favor a diverse array of nutrient-rich vegetables and grains, which are currently considered specialty crops. This would, in turn, lead to higher quality, healthier food in American markets.
Food Stamps help more than 40 million Americans provide for their most essential human needs at around $70 billion a year. To reduce that number, the root cause of the need must be addressed. Instead of trying to tie access to the basic need of food to work, Republicans should have taken aim at the wasteful subsidies sustained by the Farm Bill. Tax breaks and other government-sponsored subsidies can be useful investments for taxpayers. If subsidies help support and expand a viable industry that will add to our social and economic wellbeing, beyond the cost of the subsidies overtime, they are quality investments. If subsidies encourage unhealthy business practices and simply lead to long-term dependency, subsidies are likely a very damaging practice. Depending upon the consequences, a specific subsidy, or the manner in which a subsidy is applied, should either be expanded or killed. Food Stamps keep people fed, help keep them healthy, and provide children the nutrition they need to develop properly. One of the only reforms included in the final 2018 Farm Bill was an effort to expand the eligibility of farm subsidies to cousins and other extended family members. It is a reform only guaranteed to increase the abuse of subsidies.
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