Congress has left me confused. Stunned, actually, as well as bewildered, chagrined and slightly depressed. The GOP-dominated House has passed a bill that defies compassion, mathematics and common sense.
OK, so there’s nothing unusual about that. Point taken.
But the recent passage of a farm bill, after months of delay, is an especially sharp example of congressional priorities — protect the rich and punish the poor, comfort the comfortable while brutalizing the afflicted. The bill will cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), usually known as food stamps, while preserving subsidies for farmers, most of whom could get by quite nicely without help.
By contrast, many Americans are struggling with a globalized, roboticized economy that has devalued the average worker. The new economy has forced down wages, eliminated job security and abandoned traditional perks such as pensions. It is quite possible to work 40 or 50 hours a week and still need help to put food on the table, as the managers of food pantries around the country will attest.
Yet, congressional observers are predicting that the farm bill will pass the Senate and get President Obama’s signature. While most Democrats don’t like the cuts, the current bill, they figure, is the best they can do. It takes about 1 percent from SNAP — around $800 million a year in the $80 billion-a-year program — but that’s less than conservatives had initially sought.
Still, if Republicans really care about deficits, if they really want to rein in government, if they believe people ought to stand on their own two feet and refuse the “welfare state,” why are they preserving welfare for those who need it least? Do they not see the glaring hypocrisy in their insistence on farm subsidies?
The bill does end the least politically defensible part of farm welfare: direct payments, paid to farmers whether they plant or not. But it continues a host of other unnecessary programs that cost billions — including crop subsidies and crop insurance. Indeed, the bill increases some crop subsidies, such as those to Southern peanut farmers. And the remaining programs are just as bad as the direct payments.
Take crop insurance, which has its roots in the Dust Bowl era. Though conditions have changed substantially since then — the small family farmer has virtually disappeared — crop insurance has mushroomed. In 2012, according to The Insurance Journal, taxpayers spent $14 billion insuring farmers against a loss of income. Is there any other business in America that gets that sort of benefit? Aren’t farmers supposed to be entrepreneurs willing to take risks?
This farm welfare comes at a time when agricultural income is soaring. Last year, farm income was expected to top $120 billion, its highest mark, adjusted for inflation, since 1973, the Insurance Journal said. Lots of millionaires and billionaires are on the list of those receiving the assistance.
One case of mind-boggling hypocrisy is that of U.S. Rep. Stephen Fincher, a Republican and a farmer from Frog Jump, TN, who collected nearly $3.5 million in subsidies from 1999 to 2012, according to the Environmental Working Group. In 2012, he received $70,000 in direct payments alone — again, money paid to farmers whether they plant or not. (Can anyone say “moochers” and “takers”?)
Fincher, however, supports draconian cuts to food stamps. During a congressional debate over the SNAP program, he said, without apparent irony: “We have to remember there is not a big printing press in Washington that continually prints money over and over. This is other people’s money that Washington is appropriating and spending.”
I don’t know why the cognitive dissonance doesn’t make his brain explode.
Fraud, by the way, is rampant in farm subsidies, although you’re unlikely to hear anything about it. While the occasional welfare cheat or food stamp grifter is held up as an example of widespread abuse, neither politicians nor reporters talk much about the fraud involved in agricultural programs. You have to burrow into reports from the Government Accountability Office for that. They point to millions stolen by farm cheats.
It’s enough to make you wonder what the food stamp critics are really upset about. Government spending? Or giving the working poor a little more to eat?
(Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
AFP Photo/Scott Olson