The 2018 Farm Bill’s Hidden Agenda to Push Millions off Food Stamps

Justin Perkins

A volunteer with the Hunger Task Force packs boxes of food for people in need. Executive Director Sherrie Tussler warns, “We are going to reach a point where people are not only living as a sub-class in poverty constantly, but we’re going to put them at risk of not even being able to eat regularly."

Last August, on the first day of an eight state, two-install­ment RV tour to address pover­ty and pros­per­i­ty in rur­al Amer­i­ca for the upcom­ing farm bill, U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture Sec­re­tary George Son­ny” Per­due vis­it­ed the Wis­con­sin State Fair. 

Activ­i­ties that morn­ing includ­ed car­ni­val rides and a lis­ten­ing ses­sion with farm­ers, which Per­due host­ed along­side Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walk­er. After­ward, Per­due, Walk­er and their fam­i­lies were in search of food. Walk­er quipped, We’ll prob­a­bly find a few things on a stick.”

Per­due then set out in a Class A Hur­ri­cane Thor Motor Coach (floor­plans start with an MSRP val­ue above $100,000) to meet with young farm­ers at a farm he called, a feed the hunger” type farm — in ref­er­ence to the Hunger Task Force Farm south of Mil­wau­kee. Per­due also host­ed Paul Ryan in the RV lat­er that day. They sat around a thumb­nail kitchen table beneath a blank, wall-mount­ed LED tele­vi­sion, before host­ing a speak­ing event. 

Dubbed the Back to Our Roots” tour, Per­due vowed that the USDA will be inti­mate­ly involved” with Con­gress in writ­ing the next farm bill, and that the tour would put him out on the front lines of Amer­i­can agri­cul­ture” and enable him to know best what the cur­rent issues are.”

His quest cul­mi­nat­ed in late Jan­u­ary in Mif­fling­town, Penn., where he pre­sent­ed the USDA’s 2018 Farm Bill & Leg­isla­tive Prin­ci­ples” to Penn­syl­va­nia Farm Bureau mem­bers at Rein­ford Farms. Per­due described the four-page doc­u­ment as the roadmap” to the USDA’s farm bill priorities.

The report comes as Con­gress has begun delib­er­a­tions for the next farm bill — what could be one of the largest non-defense fund­ing autho­riza­tions in our nation’s his­to­ry. The cur­rent bill expires on Sep­tem­ber 30, and the House Ag com­mit­tee could take its first votes on a new bill any day now.

The farm bill struc­tures almost every­thing that gov­erns our food sys­tem. It dic­tates incen­tives as to what is grown and what we eat. It estab­lish­es farm sub­si­dies and trade pol­i­cy. It reg­u­lates crop insur­ance, nutri­tion pro­grams, forestry polices and con­ser­va­tion pro­grams. It allo­cates funds for dis­as­ter relief and food assis­tance pro­grams. Farm bills are passed by Con­gress about every four or five years. 

But what began as a strat­e­gy to restore farm pur­chas­ing pow­er has become infa­mous for its his­to­ry of polit­i­cal dra­ma and logrolling spec­ta­cle; a chimeric piece of leg­is­la­tion over which a dizzy­ing array of inter­ests vie for their stake. Lurk­ing behind a name that con­notes pas­toral inno­cence, lies a knot­ted entan­gle­ment of Con­gress­peo­ple serv­ing the inter­ests of Big Ag and cor­po­rate lob­by­ists. Some experts have even decried the bill as a pub­lic health crisis. 

No one per­son has a han­dle over the entire bill. They can’t pos­si­bly do that,” says Mar­i­on Nes­tle, for­mer pro­fes­sor of Nutri­tion, Food Stud­ies, and Pub­lic Health at New York Uni­ver­si­ty. Every­body knows what a farm bill ought to do. But pow­er pol­i­tics gets involved. There were hun­dreds of amend­ments put forth for the last one. Nobody can pos­si­bly know the issues involved in them. So, it’s who push­es the hardest.” 

Nes­tle recalls how one staff mem­ber from the Sen­ate Agri­cul­tur­al Com­mit­tee met with an NYU class she taught on the farm bill. The staffer admit­ted to the class that after eight years work­ing with the com­mit­tee, her best resources for learn­ing what was in the bill were lobbyists.

[Sen­ate Agri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee staff] would meet with lob­by­ists and lob­by­ists would explain what the pro­grams were about and what they want­ed, and that’s how she learned it,” Nes­tle says. In 2014, the farm bill was the sixth most lob­bied piece of leg­is­la­tion that year.

Since the tumul­tuous pas­sage of the last farm bill in 2014 (it was passed two years after the pre­vi­ous farm bill expired), farm­ers have been expe­ri­enc­ing an eco­nom­ic upheaval sim­i­lar to that of the 1980s.

In May 2017, the Nation­al Farm­ers Union launched a web­site to address a four-year pro­longed farm cri­sis, replete with infor­ma­tion on dis­as­ter relief for the year’s weath­er cat­a­stro­phes, how to apply for emer­gency relief loans, and a sui­cide pre­ven­tion hot­line. (A 2016 study by the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol found that that peo­ple work­ing in agri­cul­ture — includ­ing farm­ers, farm labor­ers, ranch­ers, fish­ers, and lum­ber har­vesters — take their lives at a high­er rate than any oth­er occupation.)

Accord­ing to Jen­nifer Fahy, com­mu­ni­ca­tions direc­tor for the non­prof­it orga­ni­za­tion Farm Aid, in 2017 chap­ter 12 bank­rupt­cies — farm bank­rupt­cies — increased at a faster rate than any oth­er type of bank­rupt­cy. Fahy says the Farm Aid has been receiv­ing a record num­ber of calls in recent years. In 2017, Farm Aid tripled the num­ber of emer­gency grants made to farm­ers, and in 2018 they’re on track to triple that num­ber again. Land rents are up and expens­es are up and [farm­ers’] mar­gins are small­er and small­er,” she says. These are peo­ple who have built their lives around their farms. When a farm goes under, it’s not just the busi­ness that goes under; it’s the loss of the farm and the land, and usu­al­ly the family’s home.”

The USDA esti­mates that from 2009 to 2016, about 109,660 farms have dis­ap­peared, with small and mid­sized farms bear­ing the brunt of these clo­sures. Over the past four years, net farm income has declined by an esti­mat­ed 50 per­cent, mark­ing the largest drop since the Great Depres­sion. Com­mod­i­ty prices have tak­en a nose­dive across the indus­try, with sig­nif­i­cant loss­es to corn, wheat, soy­bean, and dairy prices dip­ping below their post-2008-reces­sion levels.

To address the cri­sis, Per­due has com­man­deered rhetoric of his pre­de­ces­sor Hen­ry A. Wal­lace, Roosevelt’s agri­cul­ture sec­re­tary. Per­due chairs the Inter­a­gency Task Force on Agri­cul­ture and Rur­al Pros­per­i­ty, which was estab­lished by Trump in 2017, and he’s donned a new mantra for the USDA: Do Right and Feed Everyone.”

The first farm bill, passed in 1933, in many ways embod­ied Wallace’s New Deal vision. In the years lead­ing to the Great Depres­sion, many farm jour­nals and farm orga­ni­za­tions had warned farm­ers to con­trol pro­duc­tion, as ready mar­kets and fair prices were shrink­ing or not avail­able. When the econ­o­my crashed, farm­ers were struck swift­ly and direct­ly. As prices for com­modi­ties plum­met­ed, farm­ers faced a sur­plus of pro­duc­tion because many U.S. fam­i­lies were too poor to buy food. Wal­lace pledged that the gov­ern­ment would buy from those who have too much to give to those who have too lit­tle.” The Agri­cul­tur­al Adjust­ment Act of 1933 was estab­lished by Con­gress’ to relieve the exist­ing Nation­al Eco­nom­ic Emer­gency by increas­ing agri­cul­tur­al pur­chas­ing pow­er.” It was the first major New Deal agri­cul­tur­al leg­is­la­tion, and was declared uncon­sti­tu­tion­al by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1936.

For farm­ers and farm advo­cates, Perdue’s rhetoric has so far shown to be full of emp­ty promis­es, rais­ing great con­cerns with how the farm bill will pro­ceed. Per­due has helmed some­thing of a skele­ton crew at the USDA, which is under­go­ing major orga­ni­za­tion­al restruc­tur­ings (he elim­i­nat­ed the Rur­al Devel­op­ment Mis­sion Area), staff vacan­cies and scan­dal. It was not until Jan­u­ary — long after farm bill dis­cus­sions had begun — that the USDA appoint­ed an offi­cial con­gres­sion­al liai­son. As of April 12, only six of the 13 USDA posi­tions that require Sen­ate con­fir­ma­tion have been con­firmed. Three are pend­ing and the oth­er four have no nominee. 

Farm­ers and farmer advo­cates say such admin­is­tra­tive uncer­tain­ty and neg­li­gence has result­ed in delays and impaired access for essen­tial ser­vices dur­ing the Spring plant­i­ng sea­son, and have raised con­cerns about how com­mit­ted the USDA will be to small farm­ers through the sti­fling polit­i­cal process of the farm bill. 

The lan­guage from the admin­is­tra­tion on issues like trade and immi­gra­tion have been real­ly chal­leng­ing because they’re cre­at­ing this cli­mate of uncer­tain­ty that’s impact­ing farm­ers,” says Fahy of Farm Aid. There’s lan­guage out there that rur­al Amer­i­ca is impor­tant and that the admin­is­tra­tion is going to do the right thing, but the details are miss­ing. We have farm­ers call­ing because they can’t get access to the cred­it they need for the oper­at­ing loans to put seeds in the ground for this spring.” 

In the months since Sec­re­tary Perdue’s vis­it to the Hunger Task Force Farm, Sher­rie Tus­sler, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Hunger Task Force, has like­wise not­ed a sig­nif­i­cant shift in her group’s rela­tion­ship with the USDA.

There seems to be a chill­ing effect, frankly, on the work that we’ve done togeth­er pre­vi­ous­ly of improv­ing the qual­i­ty of the fed­er­al nutri­tion pro­grams and their access at a local lev­el,” says Tussler. 

For Tus­sler, Perdue’s vis­it to Wis­con­sin may have sig­naled the USDA’s leg­isla­tive agen­da to come. When asked about food assis­tance pro­grams dur­ing his trip, Per­due said at the time, Every­body can get down on their luck. We under­stand that. We under­stand com­pas­sion is need­ed. But that should not be a lifestyle of depen­den­cy on the gov­ern­ment for food.”

Tus­sler was recent­ly sur­prised to see her pho­to with Per­due in the 2018 report next to the sec­tion call­ing for strength­en­ing work require­ments for SNAP (Sup­ple­men­tal Nutri­tion Assis­tance Pro­gram) recip­i­ents. I’m hold­ing up com­modi­ties because I’m show­ing him what kind of foods low-income peo­ple live on,” Tus­sler says. He was not ter­ri­bly impressed with the pow­dered milk,” which is one of the com­mod­i­ty prod­ucts seniors receive through the USDA’s Com­mod­i­ty Sup­ple­men­tal Foods Pro­gram. We’re at the farm, but I’m show­ing him commodities.”

Tus­sler, who has been with the Hunger Task Force for 20 years, sees what has been hap­pen­ing in Wis­con­sin as fore­shad­ow­ing what Con­gress might do with the farm bill with its largest Repub­li­can major­i­ty in Con­gress since 1929.

A bureau­cra­cy that ben­e­fits the rich at the expense of the poor

In 2015, Wis­con­sin extend­ed work require­ments for able-bod­ied adults with­out depen­dents through­out the state, requir­ing 80 hours of unpaid work expe­ri­ence a month for enrollees in order to receive Food­Share ben­e­fits — the state’s ver­sion of SNAP. As a result, Tus­sler says, peo­ple are required to work more than 100 hours in unpaid labor to receive an aver­age of $105 in food assis­tance ben­e­fits per month. ResCare, a for-prof­it agency in Mil­wau­kee that pro­vides such employ­a­bil­i­ty pro­grams for Food­Share recip­i­ents, found that only 7 per­cent gained employ­ment, while 53 per­cent lost their ben­e­fits and were banned from the Food­Share pro­gram for three years. 

As a part of Gov­er­nor Walker’s plan to root out fraud in food assis­tance pro­grams, he also estab­lished an Office of the Inspec­tor Gen­er­al in Wis­con­sin. Accord­ing to Tus­sler, recent mem­os inter­nal to the OIG’s wel­fare office in Mil­wau­kee — the state’s largest wel­fare office — report that each new case being opened was required to be marked as poten­tial fraud. 

We don’t real­ly have a fraud prob­lem,” Tus­sler says, cit­ing Wis­con­sin as hav­ing one of the low­est error rates in food assis­tance ben­e­fits, at 2.5 per­cent com­pared with the nation­al aver­age of 3.6 per­cent. It just shows a com­plete lack of under­stand­ing for how peo­ple live on food stamps.” 

The cru­sade by con­ser­v­a­tives to reign in anti-pover­ty and anti-hunger pro­grams was poignant­ly on dis­play last Feb­ru­ary when Per­due pitched the idea of sup­ple­ment­ing SNAP with Har­vest Box­es.” As part of the Trump administration’s goal to slash food assis­tance pro­grams by $214 bil­lion over the next 10 years, the box­es would include shelf-sta­ble,” low nutri­tion indus­tri­al­ized calo­ries — in essence the same pow­dered milk that made Per­due cringe at the Hunger Task Force Farm. 

Yet, what received lit­tle cov­er­age in the media was not the proposal’s bla­tant inabil­i­ty to pro­vide healthy food, but rather the fact it’s already been nor­mal­ized. Since 1977, the USDA’s Food Dis­tri­b­u­tion Pro­gram on Indi­an Reser­va­tions—designed as an alter­na­tive to SNAP — has been dis­trib­ut­ing shelf-sta­ble processed food com­modi­ties, like apple sauce that con­tains no apples, to low-income Native Amer­i­cans. The pro­gram has been infa­mous for per­pet­u­at­ing the thrifty gene the­o­ry” — the notion that false­ly puts forth a bio­log­i­cal rea­son as to why Amer­i­can Indi­ans and Alas­ka Natives have a high­er rate of obe­si­ty than whites and are far more like­ly to have Type 2 diabetes.

The effect of impos­ing this diet of processed food on Native com­mu­ni­ties has giv­en rise to the phe­nom­e­non: com­mod bod.” As one Uni­ver­si­ty of Okla­homa researcher told NPR, It makes you look a cer­tain way when you eat these foods.” It has also done lit­tle to reduce the preva­lence of hunger and pover­ty. Today 60 per­cent of Native Amer­i­cans liv­ing on reser­va­tions who receive food assis­tance through SNAP rely on the pro­gram as their pri­ma­ry source of food.

Efforts to block-grant the SNAP pro­gram have been pro­posed by House Repub­li­cans in the past — a mea­sure Paul Ryan has cham­pi­oned for years, and one that has already been imple­ment­ed in Puer­to Rico with dis­as­trous effect. Such mea­sures would elim­i­nate the program’s enti­tle­ment struc­ture, cap spend­ing, cut ben­e­fits and increase com­pe­ti­tion between com­mu­ni­ties for the program’s resources.

Chang­ing work require­ments for SNAP eli­gi­bil­i­ty would tar­get low-income Amer­i­cans already strug­gling to pro­vide for them­selves and their fam­i­lies. In 2015, near­ly half of all SNAP par­tic­i­pants (44 per­cent) were under age 18, while 11 per­cent were over the age of 60 and 10 per­cent were dis­abled nonelder­ly adults. Fur­ther­more, most SNAP house­holds already held earn­ings, and a major­i­ty of house­holds did not receive cash wel­fare ben­e­fits. Near­ly half of all SNAP par­tic­i­pants (42 per­cent) held income at or below the pover­ty, and more than half (55 per­cent) of house­holds with chil­dren already held jobs. Accord­ing to the USDA, dur­ing the past 25 years, the pri­ma­ry form of income among SNAP par­tic­i­pants has shift­ed from wel­fare to work. In that time, the num­ber of SNAP house­holds with zero net income rose more than two-fold.

We are going to reach a point where peo­ple are not only liv­ing as a sub-class in pover­ty con­stant­ly, but we’re going to put them at risk of not even being able to eat reg­u­lar­ly,” says Tussler.

Writ­ing a bill in secret”​ that puts com­modi­ties and cor­po­ra­tions first

As of mid-Feb­ru­ary, the House ver­sion of the farm bill had been draft­ed, but the draft had not been made pub­lic. There is a bill out there that is sup­pos­ed­ly being scored by the Con­gres­sion­al Bud­get Office, but nobody’s seen it,” said Con­gress­man Jim McGov­ern (D‑Mass.) at a pub­lic forum in Mass­a­chu­setts. Accord­ing to McGov­ern, the bill was being writ­ten in secret,” bypass­ing the tra­di­tion­al sub­com­mit­tee structure. 

Yet as the process wore on, ini­tial rhetoric with­in the House Agri­cul­tur­al Com­mit­tee of gain­ing a need­ed a bipar­ti­san con­sen­sus had dis­solved. In March, Reps. David Scott (D- GA) and Jim Cos­ta (D‑CA) sent a let­ter to rank­ing Demo­c­ra­t­ic Ag com­mit­tee mem­ber Rep, Collin Peter­son (Calif.) ask­ing that he abstain from all farm bill nego­ti­a­tions until Conaway agreed to share part of the draft­ed leg­isla­tive text. At no point dur­ing the Committee’s 23 hear­ings on SNAP was there tes­ti­mo­ny in favor of rad­i­cal reforms to SNAP,” Scott and Cos­ta wrote. 

By ear­ly April, House Ag Com­mit­tee Chair­man Mike Conaway (R‑Texas) made the pledge of going for­ward” with the farm bill in order to defend SNAP eli­gi­bil­i­ty changes. On April 12, the House Ag Com­mit­tee released the first draft of their bill. With mount­ing oppo­si­tion from House Democ­rats, along with pres­sure to pass a farm bill with a Repub­li­can major­i­ty before mid-term elec­tions this year, the new draft faces the chance of a par­a­lyz­ing death on the House floor.

The draft­ed bill would increase the age lim­it of able-bod­ied work­ing adults from 49 to 59, and would require indi­vid­u­als to work or be enrolled in a job-train­ing pro­gram for at least 20 hours a week begin­ning in fis­cal year 2021. By 2026, that min­i­mum num­ber would jump to 25 hours per week. Those who vio­late the work require­ments could become inel­i­gi­ble for SNAP ben­e­fits for a 12-month peri­od. Those who fail to meet the require­ments a sec­ond time would be sub­ject to three years of lost ben­e­fits, unless an indi­vid­ual obtains employ­ment suf­fi­cient to meet the hourly require­ment or is no longer sub­ject to the work require­ments at an ear­li­er time.” Such changes could make as many as 5 to 7 mil­lion SNAP recip­i­ents sub­ject to stricter work requirements.

And as pre­saged by Wis­con­sin’s Food­Share pro­gram, the bill seeks to expand a nation-wide crack­down on pur­port­ed fraud. For instance, state agen­cies would be allowed to use retained SNAP funds to car­ry out actions to pre­vent fraud,” while also pro­mot­ing pub­lic-pri­vate partnerships,paving the way to imple­ment pro­grams such as ResCare and Wis­con­sin’s Food­Share nation­al­ly. It would also expand the Duplica­tive Enroll­ment Data­base in order to pre­vent Sup­ple­men­tal Nutri­tion Assis­tance Pro­gram par­tic­i­pants from receiv­ing duplica­tive ben­e­fits in mul­ti­ple states.”

Accord­ing to a state­ment, Conaway said, The farm bill also keeps faith with these fam­i­lies by not only main­tain­ing SNAP ben­e­fits but by offer­ing SNAP ben­e­fi­cia­ries a spring­board out of pover­ty to a good pay­ing job, and oppor­tu­ni­ty for a bet­ter way of life for them­selves and their families.”

In addi­tion to oppo­si­tion from Democ­rats over cuts to food assis­tance, Conaway faces a divid­ed Repub­li­can Par­ty when it comes to crop insur­ance, with some of the more con­ser­v­a­tive and lib­er­tar­i­an wings of the par­ty (as rep­re­sent­ed by the Her­itage Foun­da­tion) also in sup­port of cut­ting crop insur­ance. Paul Ryan him­self claimed in 2013 that crop insur­ance was evi­dence of crony capitalism.”

The inter­ests of the com­mod­i­ty pro­duc­ers and the cor­po­ra­tions out­weigh the inter­ests of low-income peo­ple, and as a result we don’t end up assur­ing the dietary guide­lines for Amer­i­cans,” says Tussler.

Peo­ple are sup­posed to get fruits and veg­eta­bles to be half their plate, but we don’t get fruit and veg­eta­bles as half our sup­ply,” she says. The process by which [fruits and veg­eta­bles] are offered and the fre­quen­cy [of which they are pro­vid­ed] real­ly has noth­ing to do with the needs of low-income peo­ple and every­thing to do with excess­es the agri­cul­tur­al mar­ket and the pol­i­tics of the peo­ple on the Ag Committee.”

Peo­ple can’t just eat canned green beans every sin­gle night for din­ner,” says Tus­sler. That is one of the rea­sons the Hunger Task Force estab­lished its own farm to sup­ple­ment the food and emer­gency assis­tance it receives. We’re a farm our­selves,” says Tus­sler. That’s a damn hard life.”

Justin Perkins is a Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times edi­to­r­i­al intern. He’s from Nebraska.
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