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Indecent Proposal: $20 Billion in Food Stamps Cut for a Few Farm Subsidies

The 2013 agriculture bill that was passed in the Senate, and which must now be reconciled with the bill passed by the House, proposes a few modest but welcome cuts to programs subsidizing big agriculture, but it also insures that millions of the poorest Americans will once again struggle with hunger. The Senate bill cuts $4.1 billion dollars from Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) — also known as food stamps — over 10 years; the House is proposing cuts of $20.5 billion over the same period. This means that the actual cuts will be somewhere between these two numbers and anywhere from 500,000 to 2 million people will lose essential food support.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) attempted to restore the cuts in the Senate. If nothing else, doing so would have created more bargaining room for Democrats in the deliberations that will determine the final configuration for SNAP. Her amendment was, however, defeated 76-20, and among the 28 Democrats voting against it was our own Senator Claire McCaskill.

I haven't found any statement from McCaskill about why she decided to go this route. Undoubtedly, there are lots of times when politicians swallow hard and vote for bills that have bad aspects in order to obtain important benefits for their main constituents, and Agriculture, big and small (but mostly big) is important for Missouri politicians. However, Sherod Brown of Ohio, surely an agricultural state, saw fit to support Gillibrand's amendment. Nor would this amendment have endangered the bill; it would have simply given Senate negotiators more room to get a better final bill relative to SNAP out of the reconciliation process.

Any cuts to SNAP will hurt. The New York Times notes that "some 50 million Americans live in households that cannot consistently afford enough food, even with the food-stamps program." Benefits should arguably be increased, not cut. The Senate was wrong to cut benefits for those who are most helpless while proposing to cut generous agricultural subsidies only for those farmers making more that $750,000 annually — I guess our rich Senators think you're a hardship case if you only manage to pull in a measly $600,000 a year.

Surely, McCaskill, who was calling herself a  Democrat last I heard, doesn't buy into the reactionary Republican meme of the "culture of dependency," which eschews a safety net for ideological reasons:

. . .There is a supposed moral impetus driving these cuts, a pathological desire to see to it that the 'culture of dependency' is snuffed out, as the 'pull yourself up by your bootstraps' clause remains embedded within dominant political ideology. Republican Rep. Stephen Fincher out of Tennessee recently summed up these exact sentiments when he informed a gathering in Memphis that food stamps essentially 'steal from those in the country and give to others in the country.' The culture of dependency is destroying America, so the story goes.

This message, of course, has always been reserved for the poor. This is in fact the scandal and hypocrisy of such a message. It could never be leveled at the wealthy and powerful. If it were, there would be more talk in congressional circles about prosecuting Wall Street. If it were, there would be considerably more action taken in combating tax evasion. If it were, then maybe Rep. Fincher would stop taking millions of dollars in farm subsidies and call for an end to such subsidies.

Perhaps McCaskill is just burnishing her simple-minded, deficit cutting, bipartisan-queen schtick. A "bipartisan" amendment sponsored by McCaskill and Jeff Flake of Arizona proposed to allow "taxpayers to save money via renegotiated rates with insurance companies who are making billions of dollars selling crop insurance." It essentially mandates that such savings be used to pay down the deficit (a deficit that is shrinking just fine without such intervention, thank you). So it's clear that McCaskill is sill playing that worn-out tune, although whether or not it figures into her justification for anti-SNAP vote is only conjecture.

If McCaskill does try to justify this vote on economic grounds, she should be reminded that there is actually a solid economic reason to support food stamps. Although Republicans have managed to paint stimulus as a dirty word, the underlying fact is that economic growth is the result of demand. Stimulus and food stamp spending provide just that:

Food stamps also help stimulate the economy more than other forms of government spending . . . since their recipients are so poor that they tend to spend them immediately. When Moody's Analytics assessed different forms of stimulus, it found that food stamps were the most effective, increasing economic activity by $1.73 for every dollar spent. Unemployment insurance came in second, at $1.62, whereas most tax cuts yielded a dollar or less.

I look forward to learning just why Claire McCaskill thinks it's okay to balance the budget on the backs of the most vulnerable. In the meantime, I would like to remind her of the words of Richard Nixon, of all people, quoted in the opening of a New York Times editorial about Congress' shameful efforts to cut nutritional support to poor Americans: "That hunger and malnutrition should persist in a land such as ours is embarrassing and intolerable." What's even worse is when our politicians disable governmental mechanisms used to hold the line against hunger and malnutrition.

For more on this story, check out a segment from Melissa Harris-Perry's MSNBC show below:

 

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