Last fall I wrote a piece for The Cornell Policy Review examining the history of the US farm bill and identifying stakeholder conflicts that have rendered administration of the bill impossible. I suggested that the recurring five-year omnibus bills be separated to increase the level of consideration given to the two largest components: direct agriculture payments (also referred to as farm subsidies) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), previously known as food stamps. Yesterday the current farm bill, which was only a temporary extension of the 2008 bill after Congressional failure to pass new legislation in 2012, expired, although some programs will continue in some form for at least the next month. This summer the House of Representatives took a historic step in passing independent nutrition and agriculture bills, however they have now recombined them in order to go to conference with a comprehensive bill passed by the Senate. While it is important that legislation be passed to avoid reversion of farm policy to 1938 and 1949 permanent law, congressional adherence to this dysfunctional relationship is partially due to an ongoing misunderstanding of the geographic distribution of farm bill beneficiaries. Congressional representatives must reconsider the independent objectives of each policy, the characteristics of their underlying constituencies, and find a way to evaluate each policy independently.
Originally, SNAP recipients were primarily located in urban areas and farm subsidy recipients were in rural areas, leading to the common misconception that the farm bill is a “quid pro quo” agreement between urban and rural legislators. Congress has continued this delusion. In fact, the farm bill’s roots were in the Great Depression when a glut of crops decreased market prices and precipitated the government-sanctioned destruction of crops and pigs. The decision to distribute the products to schools and non-profits instead of destroying them only occurred after the waste was revealed publicly. Farm bill policies continued to perpetuate this alliance through commodity distribution programs which served as an outlet for excess crops, however shifts in nutrition recommendations and agricultural goals have eliminated this alignment. Now, crops that are subsidized by the government have limited correlation with consumer demand and the current push to convert direct payments into crop insurance further distorts the relationship between production and consumption. Even if this “quid pro quo” relationship previously existed, it has dissolved as poverty persists nationwide and agricultural subsidies become concentrated in the hands of a few.
The map below shows SNAP participation rates in 2009 as the percentage of county population receiving benefits. High participation rates exist nationwide throughout urban, rural, Democratic, and Republican areas, in contrast to GOP persistence in defunding the program.
The map below shows the average farm program benefits in 2009 both by cropland acre and by person. Note the scale of benefits. Whereas the maximum SNAP benefit per person maxed out around $400 and the average was $125.31 in 2009, a high proportion of agricultural subsidies have provided almost $18,000 per person on average annually.
The map below shows the combined average benefits per person per county for both programs. It is possible to compare this against voting records to determine who in Congress is actually supporting the needs of their constituents.
If legislators are going to maintain the relationship between agricultural programs and nutrition programs, agricultural subsidies must support crop production in line with consumer needs. For example, the USDA determined in 2006 that in order for Americans to meet dietary guidelines for fruits and vegetables, US farmland allocated for vegetables would have to increase by 137 percent, and farmland allocated for fruit would have to increase by 100 percent. However, the farm bill delineates fruits and vegetables as “specialty crops” and prohibits production of these crops on land subsidized under the direct payment program.
It is time for legislators to do some research and figure out who and what they are truly fighting for. It was unlikely that a cohesive farm bill would be developed by the September 30th deadline. Yet, with the expired legislation still just a band-aid extension from last year’s failure to pass a new bill, it becomes imperative that Congress leverages the opportunity to develop innovative and impactful policy from scratch instead of continuing past misconceptions and dysfunctional relationships.