The farm bill has historically paid for a slew of programs, from crop subsidies to farmers, to federal agencies to promote trade, and to states to pay for the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP. SNAP money is also referred to as food stamps.
Food stamps came under attack in a number of amendments that ultimately failed, in part because of the price tag. Over the next decade, this farm bill authorizes more than $700 billion for food stamps.
“Eighty percent of the ag bill is food stamps,” said Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions. Sessions led the charge against funding for food stamps during the debate. In part, he said, because people are gaming the system. “For the past two plus years, unemployment has dropped a little bit, but the number of food stamp recipients continues up.”
Food stamp use is on the rise; it’s at record levels. In Alaska, nearly 40,000 households receive some kind of food aid. And it’s been on an upward swing for some time.
The state’s case load increased 76% over the past five years.
And yet while there are record numbers of people in the country receiving food assistance, the Senate actually cuts funding for the program, though it could have been worse. The final package cuts more than$4 billion over the next decade.
Director of Public Assistance for the State of Alaska Ron Kreher said any cut gives him pause.
“It would limit or restrict to adequately meet the needs of low-income families as far as supplemental nutrition goes,” Kreher said.
Since the legislative process is ongoing, it’s hard to surmise what a cut would mean to Alaska.
Kreher said when federal money shrinks, states have either reduced the value of monthly checks or made it harder to qualify in the first place. Neither presents an easy choice.
“In a situation where a household is receiving the minimal allotment of ten bucks or so, those folks actually save up their allotment until they’ve actually got enough to make a meaningful purchase. So a reduction of just a couple of bucks is going to be significant,” he said.
Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK) voted for the measure. He also supported a failed-amendment that would have restored the food stamp funding.
“Here’s the problem we have no money. No money? Somewhere you have to give some relief,” Begich said.
The federal government is working under tighter budgets, so this bill had to trim its value. The farm bill cuts about $23 billion over a decade.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) voted against final passage of the bill, but she was one of three Republicans to vote for the amendment preserving food stamp funding.
She said even though the bill has worthy reforms, it doesn’t meet the right balance of cuts and spending.
“I think a very legitimate deduction should be in these in subsidies that are going to agribusinesses that are doing quite fine, thank you very much,” she said.
Perhaps the most striking element of the farm bill’s passage is just how it happened: through the normal legislative procedure. A committee spent months crafting a bill and marking it up. Then Senate leaders allowed debate and votes on dozens of amendments – including more than a handful with no relation to agriculture whatsoever. Then it passed with bipartisan support.
That’s the way the Senate is designed to work, though it hasn’t worked consistently like this in awhile. The optimists in Washington, D.C. are hoping the momentum continues. But others remained skeptical. The House is crafting its own farm bill.
One plan there slashes food stamp money by $150 billion.