You might not guess from its name that the Farm Bill - officially known as the Food, Farms, and Jobs Bill - funds many programs that extend beyond agricultural production. One such program is the Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamps, which, together with nutrition programs, account for about 80% of Farm Bill spending. But though it's crucial to the well-being of millions of Americans, the food stamp program is facing significant cuts in this year's Farm Bill.
The Farm Bill is debated and passed every five years in a complicated process. The House and the Senate Agriculture Committees each create and pass a version of the Bill, which is then debated by the larger representative bodies. Then the Senate and House debate their respective bills and create a cohesive compromise - or at least that's the idea. The Farm Bill was due for renewal in September; but it was just last week that the Senate finally passed its version of the Bill, which the House will consider next week. The Bill allocates nearly $100 billion in government spending annually.
Food stamps were a huge issue in this year's Bill debates. The House version of the Bill cuts $20 billion in food stamp funding annually, about a quarter of the program's current budget. The Senate version cuts about $4 billion. Meanwhile, food stamp usage has increased dramatically in the past five years, reaching historically high rates. Cuts to the food stamp program affect millions of Americans, the majority of whom have annual incomes at or below the poverty line. Democrats have generally opposed these cuts, whereas the GOP is pushing for cuts as a way of reducing the federal budget deficit.
The Farm Bill is notoriously difficult to understand - just in researching this column, for instance, I've had to peruse dozens of websites, ranging from wonkish to agricultural. It's nearly impossible for citizens to track the status of the Bill's hundreds of amendments. Consequently, it's easy to imagine that many recipients of the Farm BIll's dozens of grant-giving and public assistance programs - including SNAP, crop subsidies, environmental and conservation grants, and so on - are themselves not entirely sure the status of the Bill's debate and whether their funders are facing budget cuts. This raises the stakes of Farm Bill negotiations, and leaves little room for public participation in the political process.
In the coming weeks, you can track the Farm Bill's progress through sites such as the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, The Hill, The Salt, and Food Politics. The public comment period has long passed for Farm Bill amendments - for now, we must wait and see how our politicians will allocate one of the largest and most expensive pieces of legislation in the American government today.
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