Senate-Passed Farm Bill Is 80 Percent Food Stamps

Matt Cover | June 28, 2012 | 8:34am EDT
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( – Nearly 80 percent of the nearly $1 trillion Farm Bill will fund an expanded food stamp program that is projected to offer increased benefits long after economists expect the economy will have recovered.

The bill, which passed the Senate June 21 on a 64-35 vote, would cost $969 billion over the next decade – mostly for food stamps.

Food stamps – formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – account for $768 billion of the bill’s ten-year total, or 79 percent of the Senate bill’s total funding. “In total, CBO estimates that enacting the [SNAP] provisions…would cost $768.2 billion,” The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) said in a June estimate of the bill.

The remaining 11 percent goes to fund the myriad of federal farm subsidies that give the Farm Bill its name, such as wetland conservation programs, price supports, and crop insurance.

The bill also locks in higher food stamp spending long after the recession is likely to have ended – keeping spending higher than its pre-recession levels.

From 2007 to 2011 food stamp spending more than doubled, going from $30 billion to $72 billion, according to the CBO, far outpacing the rise in the unemployment rate over that time.

In the current Farm Bill – which reauthorizes farm subsidies for five years – food stamp spending remains elevated, spending a recession-like average of $79 billion per year. However, the bill only authorizes spending through 2017, meaning Congress will need to revisit the issue of food stamp spending at that time.

The bill did change one part of the SNAP program that CBO predicts would save the government money. In addition to increasing spending on traditional food stamp programs, the Farm Bill also ended automatic enrollment in a SNAP heating bill subsidy program for people who received energy bill subsidies from another federal program known as LIHEAP (Low-Income Energy Assistance Program).

In this case, LIHEAP recipients were automatically enrolled SNAP’s energy bill subsidy program, even if they received only a nominal amount of money. Taking advantage of this loophole, states – who administer LIHEAP payments – would often send nominal amounts of money to poor residents, sometimes in amounts less than $5, to automatically enroll them in the SNAP heating subsidy.

In the Senate-passed version of the Farm Bill, this automatic enrollment program was ended for people who receive less than $10 in LIHEAP benefits, a change CBO estimated would save $4.5 billion over ten years.

The Senate bill must now be passed by the House, or else reconciled with a House-passed farm bill. The House Agriculture Committee is scheduled to meet July 11 to consider its own farm bill proposal.

Meanwhile, the USDA is running radio ads encouraging more Americans to enroll in the food stamp program. In one ad, an elderly black woman wonders how another woman "stays so fit, what's her secret?" Her friend replies: "Well, she told me that food stamps help her eat right, and she stays active, too."

Press reports say the USDA has spent up to $3 million on paid advertising, in additon to free public service announcements.

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