Gazette opinion: Montana needs both farm aid, food aid

2013-07-24T00:00:00Z Gazette opinion: Montana needs both farm aid, food aid The Billings Gazette
July 24, 2013 12:00 am

Small wonder that agriculture leaders are dismayed with the split Farm Bill that House Republicans passed.

For nearly 40 years, since former Sens. Bob Dole and George McGovern combined nutrition and ag programs in a farm bill, that strong rural-urban appeal produced laws that benefited all Americans. Montana Farmer’s Union, Montana Farm Bureau, Montana Grain Growers and Northwest Farm Credit Services were among hundreds of U.S. ag organizations who wrote to House Speaker John Boehner, cautioning him against splitting food aid from farm aid.

But on July 11, House Republicans stripped all nutrition programs out of a farm bill and passed it.

Farmers worry

This House Farm Bill also changes the stakes for ag programs. It would end the requirement that federal farm policy revert back to the original farm bill language of 1938 and 1949 if Congress fails to pass a new bill. Without that provision, ag producers worry that future farm bills may not pass.

Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., voted with his GOP colleagues for the split bill. Afterward, he said the debate centers around the food stamp program, not the ag programs.

House members who want deeper cuts in nutrition programs say they want to do away with fraud and abuse. But they would cut benefits to millions of low-income Americans who did nothing illegal. The House bill proposed eliminating state flexibility in determining SNAP eligibility. It would have eliminated “categorical eligibility,” which some states, including Montana, use to simplify the process of getting groceries for impoverished families who already qualify for more financially restrictive programs (such as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families).

USDA reports that fraud affects just 1.5 percent of benefits, mostly with recipients who sell benefits to small grocery stores at a discount in exchange for cash. Last year, USDA removed 2,000 food stores from the program for violations.

Children getting benefits

SNAP critics complain about the program’s growth since the start of the recession. USDA statistics show that SNAP enrollment increased by 2.7 million people for every 1 percent increase in unemployment. That ratio is about the same as seen with recessions in 1990-1992 and in 2001-2003.

About 127,000 Montanans are receiving SNAP benefits, most of them are children, disabled individuals or senior citizens.

Montana and the nation need a law that provides both farm and food aid.

A low-income, working Billings family of three who recently applied for SNAP qualified for the maximum benefit: $16.96 per day. Our great nation will be poorer if it takes away that modest grocery aid from a struggling husband, wife and child.

We have previously recommended that the House take up and pass the bipartisan bill that passed the Senate. The Senate bill remains the best bill on the table with expiration of the present Farm Bill looming on Sept. 30 and Congress taking vacation for most of August and part of September.

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