McFeatters: Costly farm bill should leave no one hungry
No American should go hungry. That has been a bedrock principle since the trauma of the Great Depression.
When Congress returns from its August recess next week, it has the unfinished business of extending a farm bill that expired in 2012 for another five years. The complete bill would be close to $1 trillion, with about 80 percent going toward nutrition programs, mostly the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program -- food stamps, which now benefit nearly 48 million Americans. Agriculture programs are set to expire Sept. 30. Beyond that, food-stamp recipients' benefits will decrease when a provision in the 2009 stimulus bill expires in November.
The Democratic Senate passed its version of the bill in June, but, in a concession to Republicans, cut spending by $23 billion over 10 years. That includes $4 billion in food stamps, although arguably the demand would be greater then simply because of population growth.
The Republican House passed a bill of its own in July, keeping farm subsidies largely intact but eliminating food stamps.
The House would not completely abandon Americans. One popular proposal would cut $40 billion from the food-stamp program over 10 years and add drug-testing and work requirements. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank, estimates that the combination of cuts and requirements would push 4 million to 6 million people off the rolls.
Some GOP lawmakers talk vaguely about private charitable groups stepping into the gap, but food banks already are stretched to the limit.
Work requirements for the able-bodied sound like a good idea -- until you consider there are more than 11 million unemployed, with more than 4.2 million jobless for at least 27 weeks. Another 2.4 million want a job but have become so discouraged they've quit looking.
The average hourly wage -- and, mind you, this is an average -- is just over $20 an hour. That amount is subject to payroll, sales and real-estate taxes; the working poor are hardly dining in Lucullan splendor.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released a study showing that nearly 49 million Americans lived in "food-insecure households" last year, meaning they did not have "consistent access throughout the year to adequate food." Stripped of the bureaucratic jargon, that means these households at some point -- frequently, in some cases -- didn't know where their next meal was coming from.
In a country that sings lovingly and shamelessly of its "amber waves of grain" and mountains towering "above the fruited plain," no American should go hungry.
Dale McFeatters is a senior writer for the Scripps Howard News Service.