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“Robbing-Peter-To-Pay-Paul”: Congress Unites To Screw The Hungry

Five years into our so-called recovery, hunger in America remains stuck at a depressingly high level. The number of families who struggle to put food on the table has barely inched downward, even though employment is up. And while a majority of those struggling families are already receiving food stamps, one of the biggest ways we assist families in need, it’s just not enough, making hunger in America a very real and serious concern.

You would think a generous, wealthy country like the United States would have no problem bolstering an initiative designed to help the working poor in such dire times. Surely, you might think, there is bipartisan support for one of the most successful anti-poverty programs in the country. But in fact there has been bipartisan support for decreasing both the amount of food stamp money families receive and the number of families who receive them.

In any given month, roughly 46 to 47 million people receive food stamps. It’s highly likely that even more families are eligible to receive them, but don’t seek the help because they don’t believe they qualify, are reluctant to go through the hassle of applying, or are subtly or overtly discouraged from doing so by the caseworker they meet.

Food stamps help reduce hunger, but they don’t eliminate it. Estimates released by the United States Department of Agriculture last week show that 17.5 million families struggle to put food on the table, and 62 percent of them were already receiving food stamps. About 6.8 million of those families have so little money for food they skip meals or eat less than they should. Those numbers are about the same they were in the previous year.

The costs of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, as food stamps are officially known, went up to about $78 billion a year during the recession, mostly because more people were using them. The increase in use tracks pretty well with the rise in unemployment and poverty during the downturn. More people lost jobs or income, and so more people needed help feeding their children.

In response to the rising need, Congress bumped up the amount of money families got on their benefit cards when they passed the stimulus act in 2009. The reasons were multifold: more money would help struggling families buy more food, but it also meant they spent more at their grocery stores, keeping their local economies pumping. Each dollar spent by the government in food stamps generates about $1.70 in economic activity.

Then, in a rare show of bipartisanship, Democrats and Republicans teamed up to gut the program. As David Dayen reported in The American Prospect, the Democrats were the first to raid this piggy bank when they decided to use food-stamp funds to help pay for a state aid bill in 2010. The stimulus food-stamp boost was supposed to last until about 2016, but the changes the Democrats made meant the extra funding would end earlier, in 2014.

The food stamp program then lost $2.2 billion to help pay for a $4.5 billion increase in the school lunch bill in 2010. Blanche Lincoln, the former Democratic senator from Arkansas who was then chair of the Senate agriculture committee, designed this Robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul move. It drew opposition from anti-hunger groups but the bill passed anyway, partly because it was a centerpiece of Michelle Obama’s newly launched Let’s Move campaign to fight childhood obesity.

After Democrats laid that foundation, the Republicans came in and began attacking the program. First, they let the stimulus boost expire, which that meant an average family of three receiving benefits lost $29 per month. The cuts went into effect November 2013, right before the holidays.

Next, the House Republicans in charge attacked the base funding itself. Food stamps are the biggest and most expensive component of the farm bill—an arcane piece of legislation that sets farm policy. Because of the 70 percent increase in food stamp spending since the last farm bill had passed, in 2008, House Republicans refused to pass this one when it first went up for a vote last year. It was the first time in history a farm bill failed, and it later passed without the food-stamp component. After the House finally did address nutrition spending and work with the Senate, the program emerged in February with $8.6 billion cut over the next 10 years, so it’s no wonder families are still going hungry.

To be fair, Democrats fought these final cuts to the program: House Republicans originally wanted to cut $40 billion and the Democrats brought that number down. Indeed, a few Democrats—like Jim McGovern of Massachusetts in the House and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York in the Senate—want to rescind cuts and provide even more food stamp funding. But even if they succeed, that money might be too tempting for their fellow party members to pass up the next time they want to spend cash on something else.

 

By: Monica Potts, The Daily Beast, September 8, 2014

September 12, 2014 Posted by | Food Stamps, Poor and Low Income, Poverty | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“What States’ Rights?”: House GOP Fights For Food-Stamp Cuts

Ordinarily, when conservative policymakers complain about “fraud” and “cheating” in federal programs intended to help poor people eat food, they’re referring to individuals accused of abusing the system unfairly. But over the last few days, congressional Republicans are using familiar rhetoric in an unfamiliar way.

Republican leaders are threatening to take congressional action to stop state governors from flouting the food stamp cuts contained in the 2014 farm bill.

The governors of at least six states – New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Montana and Oregon – have now taken measures to protect more than a combined $800 million in annual Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, and more states are expected to follow suit. Their actions threaten – over time – to wipe out the more than $8 billion in cuts over 10 years to the food stamp program that were just passed by Congress as part of the 2014 farm bill.

But those who initially supported the food stamp cuts are warning that retaliatory actions may be coming.

As a policy matter, the underlying change is a little tricky. Republicans successfully cut food aid to the poor – though not nearly as much as they’d hoped – which mostly affected 17 states that participate in the “Heat and Eat” program, which connects federal LIHEAP (Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program) assistance with SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).

At last count, six of the affected governors – five Democrats and one Republican – have decided to start fiddling with the books, moving money around so low-income constituents won’t lose their food benefits. Other governors appear eager to do the same.

And this has apparently outraged Republicans on Capitol Hill. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters late last week that he wants Congress to “try to stop this cheating and this fraud from continuing.” Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), who helped write the relevant legislation, wants a full congressional investigation and new measures intended to guarantee food-stamp cuts.

Remember, the “cheating” and “fraud” is in reference to state officials trying to help low-income residents access food.

For its part, the Obama administration seems a lot less concerned than Congress.

Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.) expressed anger Friday over the possibility that none of the cuts to the SNAP program would be realized and asked USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack during an appropriations hearing whether he had any inside knowledge that states would nullify the benefit reductions.

Vilsack said he didn’t know or suspect what the states would do, but defended their right to take action.

“Frankly, as a former governor and former state senator, I respect the role of governors and legislatures to make decisions that they think are in their state’s best interests,” Vilsack said.

GOP lawmakers found this unsatisfying. Expect to hear quite a bit more about this in the coming weeks.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, March 17, 2014

March 19, 2014 Posted by | House Republicans, SNAP, States Rights | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Why Don’t We Just Pack Up And Go Home?”: Republicans Are Afraid To Take The Blame For Their Own Actions

Just this week, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) have all presented the identical argument: passing immigration reform will be very difficult because Republicans consider President Obama fundamentally untrustworthy.

The general thrust of the argument is that GOP lawmakers aren’t confident that the Obama administration will enforce federal law, and as such, they don’t want to vote for reform. Even if Congress approves sweeping border-security measures intended to satisfy GOP lawmakers’ demands, they say, Obama, the out-of-control, “lawless” radical, may simply blow off laws (or parts of laws) whenever it strikes his fancy.

It’s a deeply silly posture, based largely on fantasy and this partisan pretenses, but House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) took this one step further yesterday during a notable press briefing.

“When [Republicans] say … they don’t trust the president to do it, why don’t we just pack up and go home?” she said. “We have a democratic system. We have checks and balances. We have three branches of government. In fact, we’re the first in the Constitution – the legislative branch. And what we’re supposed to do is legislate, and not make up excuses as to why we don’t.”

“That’s not a reason not to do an immigration bill, that’s an excuse not to do it,” she added. “And around here, you have to always differentiate between what is a reason, and what is an excuse.”

This may have seemed like a throwaway line, uttered in frustration, but Pelosi actually raised a critically important point. If Republicans believe their own rhetoric, why would Congress even show up for work at all?

Pelosi’s response may have sounded flippant, but there’s nothing rhetorical or theoretical about the Republican assertions. If the majority of the House of Representatives is sincere, and GOP lawmakers seriously believe President Obama simply ignores laws whenever he feels like it, and acts unilaterally to impose his will, Constitution be damned, why doesn’t Congress “just pack up and go home”?

Indeed, consider the legislative process over the last month or so. Both the House of Representatives and the Senate passed appropriations bills, directing the executive branch to finance government operations. But if Republicans don’t trust the president to faithfully execute the laws approved by the legislative branch, why did Congress bother? Why didn’t Republicans balk and declare they would only appropriate funds after Obama had earned their trust?

Soon after, lawmakers in both chambers approved a farm bill, which the Obama administration will now help implement. But if the House GOP is convinced the rascally president ignores laws, why did they vote on the farm bill in the first place?

House Republicans keep voting on all kinds of measures, which would be an odd thing to do if they’re convinced the American system of government has broken down so severely that a lawless White House is prepared to ignore federal laws on a whim.

And therein lies the point: lawmakers keep voting on legislation because they probably don’t seriously believe their own talking points. They’re not genuinely convinced Obama will blow off federal laws, because if they were, they would bother to pass new federal laws.

What’s likely happening is that Republicans may kill immigration reform and they’re afraid to take the blame for their own actions. The “we can’t trust Obama” line is a fig leaf, and a rather transparent one at that.

Of course, if I’m mistaken, and House Republicans genuinely believe they see a president who casually disregards and/or breaks laws he doesn’t like, they can prove their sincerity by stopping the legislative process and beginning impeachment proceedings. But so long as GOP lawmakers continue to legislate, working under the assumption that the executive branch will still execute federal laws, the inanity of the Republican argument on immigration will be increasingly obvious.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Madow Blog, February 7, 2014

February 10, 2014 Posted by | Immigration Reform, Republicans | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“So Much For Reform”: The Only Winners In The Farm Bill Are Farmers And Big Insurance

Late Monday, House and Senate negotiators finalized a bipartisan compromise on the five-year farm bill, a warm-and-fuzzy-sounding Frankenstein-like amalgamation of crop subsidies, food stamps, and various handouts to industries loosely related to agriculture. The 949-page House-Senate compromise, two years in the making, will likely go up for a House vote on Wednesday and a Senate vote next week.

“We’ve got a bill that makes sense, works for farmers and ranchers and consumers and families that need help, and protects our land and water and our wildlife,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, tells Reuters.

Stabenow may be correct that the farm bill will make it to President Obama’s desk — “it’s expected to sail through the House and Senate in the coming days — mostly because lawmakers want to get it over with already,” says The Washington Post‘s Ed O’Keefe. But it’s not exactly great for farmers and families that need help or other consumers.

The bill cuts spending by about $23 billion versus current funding levels, with more than $8 billion of that coming from cuts to food stamps, formally called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). It amounts to roughly a $90-a-month cut to 850,000 households. That’s far less than the $40 billion in SNAP cuts in the House version, but roughly twice the reduction in the Senate bill.

Another $6 billion comes from combining 23 conservation programs into 13. Other programs being cut include the “Red Meat Safety Research Center.” But the biggest supposed saving — $19 billion — is from ending direct payments to farmers (and some landowners who don’t actually farm), which cost taxpayers about $5 billion a year.

So that sounds like shared sacrifice, right? Not exactly. Most of the money from the direct payments is being shifted to subsidized crop insurance programs. “It’s a classic bait-and-switch proposal to protect farm subsidies,” Vincent H. Smith, a professor of farm economics at Montana State University, tells The New York Times. “They’ve eliminated the politically toxic direct payments program and added the money to a program that will provide farmers with even larger subsidies.”

On the other hand, the farm lobby is lining up behind the package. “The bill is a compromise,” says Ray Gaesser, president of the American Soybean Association. “It ensures the continued success of American agriculture, and we encourage both the House and the Senate to pass it quickly.” The American Farm Bureau Association — the big muscle of the farm lobby, employing 52 Washington lobbyistsurged quick passage of the bill.

The House and Senate conferees also loosened limits on how much individual farmers can receive in subsidies and loans in a given year, to $125,000 per person from $50,000 in the earlier bills. “If what we’ve heard proves true, the deal will result in virtually unlimited farm program payments continuing to inure to the nation’s largest and wealthiest mega-farms,” says Traci Bruckner at Nebraska’s Center for Rural Affairs.

@ChadPergram : Club for Growth on farm bill: It’s a “Christmas Tree” bill where there’s a gift for practically every special interest group out there..

For an in-depth look a the politics of the farm bill, read Molly Ball’s excellent article at The Atlantic. Her thesis is that the big losers here are Republicans, since rural Red State GOP stalwarts are feeling betrayed by the intra-party fighting over the bill between the “more urban, libertarian, ideological strain” of the party represented by the Tea Party and the traditional faction that represents rural and farming interests. But it’s also pretty clear who the winners are: Farmers and insurance companies.

When America’s programs of crop subsidies began during the Great Depression, more than 20 percent of employed workers made their living on farms, earning a third of what Americans pulled in for non-farm work, Ball notes. Now, farmers make up only two percent of the U.S. workforce, and farming households earned $84,400 on average in 2010, 25 percent higher than the national average.

“Farm subsidies are welfare for the well-to-do,” argued the Cato Institute’s Tad DeHaven and Chris Edwards at The Hill. Farmers booked record profits in 2012, despite severe droughts, thanks largely to federally supported crop insurance. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), taxpayers pick up 62 percent of the average farmer’s crop insurance premiums. And the feds pay insurers directly, too, to the tune of $1.3 billion a year.

“In 2012, the Corn Belt’s unprecedented drought led to an insurance payout of $18 billion in crop indemnities — $14 billion of it taxpayer-funded,” Ball adds. “The insurance companies, in what should have been a terrible year for them, made a profit.” This has created a strange coalition that includes Cato and the conservative Heritage Foundation plus liberal groups like the EGW. They disagree on food stamps, she says, but “left and right alike charge that programs billed as a safety net to protect farmers from the vicissitudes of nature are instead an increasingly cushy hammock.”

The outlook is mixed for consumers. Efforts to stabilize or boost prices for farmers isn’t great for shoppers in the short run — a program to limit sugar imports and domestic production is designed to keep sugar prices artificially high. But new rules will force meat packagers to say where the animal was raised and slaughtered, a boon to label-watchers.

And in the long run, as Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told the Farm Bureau’s annual meeting last week, the one percent of Americans who grow the nation’s food supply “ought to be celebrated.” Their toil lets the rest of the country pursue other work, he said. “The country ought to be reminded of it, and every farmer in this country should be valued, appreciated, and thanked.”

I like farmers and am glad when rural America gets the tools it needs to survive. But the Farm Bureau and other members of the farm lobby appears to have gotten their money’s worth in this Congress. On the other hand, it’s called the farm bill — so it’s not exactly a breach of truth in advertising.

 

By: Peter Weber, The Week, January 28, 2014

February 2, 2014 Posted by | Agriculture, SNAP | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Five Times George W. Bush Extended Unemployment Insurance Benefits”: It’s Just Bad Policy To Refuse To Renew The Extension

In his December 14, 2002 weekly radio address, President George W. Bush reminded Congress that “no final bill was sent to me extending unemployment benefits for about 750,000 Americans whose benefits will expire on December 28th.”

He went on, “These Americans rely on their unemployment benefits to pay for the mortgage or rent, food, and other critical bills. They need our assistance in these difficult times, and we cannot let them down.”

What was the unemployment rate in December 2002?

It had just risen to 6.0 percent.

The unemployment rate today is 7.0 percent and at the end of this year 1.3 million Americans — including 20,000 veterans — who have been out of work for more than six months will have their unemployment insurance benefits cut off. Republicans in Congress have refused to extend these benefits, though the Congressional Budget Office predicts failing to do so will cost the economy 200,000 jobs.

The Republican Congress heeded George W. Bush’s call to extend unemployment insurance as they had the March before. They passed a bill and he signed it.

In 2003, the American economy was still dealing with the residue of the dot-com bust and economic shock of the 9/11 attacks — but it was still considerably stronger than the America that lived through the Great Recession and continues to see its growth hindered by government austerity.

The extended unemployment benefits Congress is about to let expire actually began under George W. Bush, long after his 2003 extension expired as unemployment dipped below 5 percent again. In 2008, as the financial crisis began to rock the economy, President Bush signed an extension of 13 weeks, 39 weeks total in most states, for anyone living in a state with unemployment over 6.0 percent. He also signed unemployment extensions that specifically helped the victims of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.

All five times Bush extended unemployment benefits, he did so with the majority of Republicans in Congress supporting him.

At the peak of the crisis, when unemployment was around 10 percent, Congress and President Obama extended benefits to 99 weeks. The current maximum is 73 weeks.

A requirement of receiving benefits is seeking a new job, but with an estimated three people out of work for every one job opening, cutting off benefits likely won’t encourage jobseekers — as Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) imaginesbut instead doom them to permanent unemployment. And the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) estimates that the 1.3 million who will be cut off in 2014 will soon swell to 5 million.

There are two huge reasons why now is not the time to cut off the long-term unemployed, explains the CBPP’s Brad Stone.

While the unemployment rate has declined, the overall employment rate has not grown as it usually would during a recovery.

employment rate

Secondly, cutting off benefits now for those who need them most is unprecedented.

“At 2.6 percent, the long-term unemployment rate is at least twice as high as when any of the emergency federal UI programs that policymakers enacted in each of the previous seven major recessions expired,” Stone wrote.

long-term unemployment rate

Even conservatives recognize that it’s just bad policy to refuse to renew the extension.

Democrats in Congress have vowed to tie the extension to the passage of the farm bill in order to force Republicans to approve it retroactively. They’re expected to be supported by an organized grassroots effort from the left to force vulnerable congressmembers to encourage the GOP leadership to take up the bill.

But it’s safe to assume that if it were President Bush asking for the extension rather than President Obama, the GOP would be happy to just say yes.

 

By: Jason Sattler, The National Memo, December 20, 2013

 

December 21, 2013 Posted by | Unemployment Benefits | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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