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The Farm Bill
The Farm Bill is the law that sets much of U.S. agricultural and food policy. It is reauthorized roughly every five years, and the current version expires September 30, 2018. House Republicans have drafted a new version of the bill without any input from House Democrats. They plan to vote on it during the Spring or Summer of 2018 before the current version expires.
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What’s in the Farm Bill?
The most recent Farm Bill, which was passed in 2014, is broken into 12 sections (called “titles”): commodities (price and income supports for dairy, sugar, and common crops like soybeans and grains); conservation; trade; nutrition; credit (federal loan programs); rural development; research; forestry; energy (particularly renewable energy); specialty crops and horticulture (fruits, vegetables, nuts, and organics); crop insurance; and miscellaneous.
The policies in each section, and the amount of money devoted to them (about $100 billion per year, overall), help determine what farmers decide to grow, and what Americans can afford to eat.
The current Farm Bill devotes about 80 percent of its resources to the nutrition title, which includes the nation’s largest nutrition assistance program—the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps)—as well as several smaller food assistance programs that similarly help Americans get enough to eat.
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What’s different about the newest version of the Farm Bill?
This year, the House bill was written through a very different process. Past versions have had input from both parties, but this iteration was written independently by the House Agriculture Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Conaway (R-TX). The Senate version of the bill is still under negotiation through a bipartisan process.
The biggest changes the bill would make are to SNAP. It would make SNAP’s current work requirements—which function as time limits for unemployed and underemployed workers—even harsher. Currently, a non-disabled adult age 18 to 49 who does not have a dependent, and who does not have a job that assigns them at least 20 hours per week, can only receive benefits for three months every three years. The bill would extend these requirements to adults under the age of 60, including those raising a child age 6 or older.
The bill sharply rolls back “categorical eligibility,” which makes families automatically eligible for SNAP and free school meals if they qualify for other programs that indicate they’re facing financial hardship. It also requires states to adopt SNAP’s strict federal asset tests, making families ineligible if they have modest savings or a relatively inexpensive car, rolling back progress in 40 states. And for most families it ends “heat and eat,” which allows families that receive help paying their energy bills to use this assistance as evidence that they face high energy costs and therefore need more nutrition support.
If the bill passes, more than 2 million people—particularly in low-income working families with children—will lose SNAP or face lower benefits.
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Why does the bill make all those changes to SNAP?
The changes to the nutrition programs are part of House Speaker Paul Ryan’s ongoing effort to slash programs that help people get assistance with food, housing, health care, and other basic necessities. The primary strategy House Republicans are using to accomplish that in the Farm Bill—known as work requirements—is very ineffective at helping people find good jobs. We already learned this lesson through TANF. The new work requirements will mostly mean that jobless workers and people who face barriers to work—because they are homeless, need child care, have a criminal record, need health care, or simply lack transportation or don’t get to set their own hours at work—will lose access to the SNAP benefits that provide them with food. It also creates red tape that makes it easy for people to lose benefits for a year or more just by missing a monthly employment verification form. And past experience shows that conservative claims that people with disabilities or other health problems will be protected from work requirements simply aren’t true.
The bill does include some funding to help people find jobs or training. However, it’s not enough funding to provide a job or training to everyone who would need it: It only amounts to about $28 per person per month. By comparison, TANF’s employment services cost about $414 per person per month in the typical state and are still woefully inadequate.
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Does the bill at least help farms?
It depends. More than 90 percent of payments go to the biggest 20 percent of farms. As a result, very large farms can receive millions of dollars, while the majority only receive a few thousand dollars. This payment structure encourages the consolidation of farms. In 2015, more than half of agricultural production value came from big farms with sales of at least $1 million (compared to 31 percent in 1991).
The Farm Bill does very little to address the growing concentration in the agriculture market. For instance, the three biggest seed producers control 80 percent of U.S. seeds; the four biggest soybean producers control 85 percent of soybean processing; and four companies control 82 percent of beef processing in the United States. These are dramatic increases in the share of the market that companies control since the 1990s. These changes may not be glaringly obvious in the aisles of the grocery store, but it means there’s a lot less variety in the food we eat, less resilience for the overall food system, and a growing share of the profits going to the most dominant firms.
On the individual level, the median farm income for farm households is forecasted to be -$1,316 in 2018. That’s negative one thousand three hundred sixteen dollars. For more than half of farm households, farming is not profitable and must be supplemented with off-farm income.
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Where can I learn more?
Center for American Progress, House Republican Farm Bill Proposal Launches a Dangerous Attack on Nutrition Assistance, April 13, 2018.
The Hill, The House Republican farm bill has nothing to do with helping anyone work, April 18, 2018.
Center for American Progress, Work Requirement Proposals Would Kick Struggling Workers When They’re Down, November 2, 2017.
Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Chairman Conaway’s Farm Bill Would Increase Food Insecurity and Hardship, April 18, 2018.
CLASP, House Farm Bill Would Sabotage SNAP, April 17, 2018.
The Wall Street Journal, Supersized Family Farms Are Gobbling Up American Agriculture, October 23, 2017.
Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, Agricultural consolidation causes and the path forward: The 2017 Agricultural Symposium, November 13, 2017.
National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, An Agenda for the 2018 Farm Bill, October 2017.