This week, the House was scheduled to consider legislation authorizing various federal agriculture, land conservation, and nutrition programs. Commonly referred to as the Farm Bill, this legislation was last approved in 2008 and is scheduled to expire at the end of September.
Amidst one of the most severe droughts in the United States since the Dust Bowl during the 1930s, passing a Farm Bill is critically important to provide needed assistance to impacted farmers. The Senate already passed a long-term extension in June that, while flawed, is a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, House Republicans instead opted to put forward a short-term extension that retains nearly $5 billion in unjustifiable direct payments to farmers, defunds important organic and new farmer assistance initiatives, and slashes conservation funding by over $600 million.
As poorly as this short-term measure has been handled, the House Republicans five-year proposal is even worse, particularly its significant cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as Food Stamps. That bill, already passed out of the House Agriculture Committee, would cut SNAP by $16.5 billion over the next decade, eliminating food assistance to 2 to 3 million low-income people, mostly low-income working families with children and seniors.
The House Republican Farm Bill achieves these cuts to SNAP by eliminating “categorical eligibility,” which over 40 states have adopted, that extends the eligibility for SNAP funding to working families and seniors with gross incomes slightly above the federal limit, but disposable incomes below the poverty line. The bill also ends free school meals to 280,000 children in low-income families whose eligibility for free school meals is tied to their receipt of SNAP benefits. To add further insult, the bill requires modest assets, like a car used to commute to work, to be included in the gross used to determine eligibility. As a result, families may be put in a position where they would need to give up a vehicle in order to put healthy food on the table.
SNAP should be preserved because it works. According to a Center for Budget and Policy Priorities analysis of National Academy of Science data, in 2010 SNAP kept about two million children out of poverty and lifted 1.3 million children out of deep poverty. That same year, 17.2 million U.S. households were food insecure, meaning they did not know where their next meal would come from. SNAP helps millions of families struggling through economic difficulties, exactly how it was designed to function.
Despite the strength of our local economy, Northern Virginians are not immune from the growing food insecurity caused by unexpected financial difficulties. For example, United Community Ministries in Fairfax County provided food assistance to 13,000 individuals representing 4,000 households in fiscal year 2011, a 15 percent increase over pre-recession levels.
As I continue to work in Congress to find a bipartisan, five-year extension of the Farm Bill, I will continue to keep in mind the impact cuts to our social safety net will have on communities, non-profit programs, and most importantly, struggling families and individuals.
Rep. James Moran (D) is Virginia’s 8th Congressional District Representative in the U.S. House of Representatives.