Food aid programs for low-income Americans hang in the balance – with Senate results still too close to announce

By Zoe Han

The Farm Bill determines everything from farm subsidies to nutritional assistance programs

The results of the midterm elections will have far-reaching effects, including on low-income Americans.

Reauthorization of the Farm Bill in 2023 could depend on Tuesday’s election results, said Elaine Waxman, senior fellow at the Income Benefits Policy Center at the Urban Institute of Washington DC, the left-leaning policy think tank.

The Farm Bill basically decides how the government will spend money on food – from agricultural production and international trade to food security and helping low-income families. Every five years, the House and Senate revisit the various budgets and requirements of the bill and eventually reauthorize the bill. The current version expires in September 2023.

The largest Farm Bill budget is allocated to nutrition programs, particularly the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Formerly known as the food stamp program, SNAP aims to help low-income households get food.

The Senate and House of Representatives are too close to be called. On Wednesday, Republicans appear to have gained ground in their effort to regain control of the House. A divided Congress would lead to more bickering and compromise over how Farm Bill funds are allocated, analysts say.

“SNAP helps more than 41 million people – roughly the population of New York, Georgia and Michigan combined – put food on their tables every month,” said Alice. Reznickova, an interdisciplinary scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit organization based in Cambridge, Mass.

“SNAP supports millions of American families, often adults caring for children or the elderly, and plays an important role in urban and rural economies,” she wrote in a blog post this week. .

In fiscal year 2023, which began in October, a person whose income is at or below 130% of the poverty level, or $1,920 per month for a family of three, is eligible to receive $281 per month on average, compared to $250 previously.

During the pandemic, Congress increased SNAP benefits and suspended work requirements for able-bodied people. Previously, the program required most able-bodied people to work at least 20 hours a week, otherwise participants could only receive three months of assistance in 36 months.

Now that the jobless rate has fallen since the peak of the pandemic — it hovered at 3.7% in October, from a recent high of 14.7% in April 2020 — lawmakers are increasingly talking about abandoning these emergency measures, especially from Republicans.

The Republican Review Committee outlined its view of the Farm Bill in a recent report. “The SNAP Act is supposed to limit benefits for able-bodied adults without children who don’t want to work, look for work, or enroll in job training to three months within a three-year period,” according to the report.

“Additionally, for many years, conservatives have pushed for SNAP to be converted into a discretionary block grant to states based on unemployment rates, poverty, and how long recipients receive assistance,” a- he added. “Under this model, states would have the flexibility to administer their own programs subject to several common-sense requirements to ensure program effectiveness and sustainability.”

But Democratic opponents have said SNAP eligibility must take into account the real challenges of unemployed and/or underemployed workers.

“People under this rule have extremely low incomes and often face barriers to work,” said Ty Jones Cox, vice president of food assistance policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), a progressive think tank in Washington, DC that focuses on the impact of federal and state fiscal policies.

These barriers include criminal background, racial discrimination and/or health issues, while unemployed and underemployed Americans also tend to have less education, she added. Jones Cox was speaking before the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Department Nutrition, Surveillance and Operations in June.

It’s always a contentious debate, but this year the debate between Democrats and Republicans is complicated by climate change and inflation, Waxman added.

The balance of power in Congress

The push to cut the SNAP budget is long in the tooth. In 2014 and 2018, House Republicans offered deep cuts to both years’ versions. Neither made it to the final version. Democrats held a majority in the House in 2018, while Republicans held a majority in the House in 2014.

Whether Republicans take control of both the House and Senate, or whether midterm leaves the country a divided Congress — currently, a possibility based on results so far — Republicans will most likely seek reduce the size of supplementary nutrition programs, which include the special supplementary nutrition program for women, infants (WIC) and SNAP, analysts said.

If the Democrats manage to retain both the Senate and the House, the Biden administration will have more leverage to continue to focus on reducing hunger, supporting nutrition programs and supporting climate change and conservation programs – as well as expanding opportunities for small producers. , says the report.

SNAP budget cuts, on the other hand, could impact millions of Americans. For fiscal year 2022, more than 41 million people — or nearly 22 million households — received food stamps totaling nearly $96 billion, according to the latest data from the Department of Agriculture.

During the worst days of the pandemic, SNAP enrollments surged: in 2020, approximately 3 million additional Americans enrolled in SNAP, increasing the number of people participating in the program from 35.7 million to 39.8 million .

“People think that when the unemployment rate goes down, then SNAP becomes less important,” Waxman said. But the lingering effects of the pandemic, 40-year high inflation and rising interest rates have only complicated this simple assumption, she added.

Food inflation has no miracle solution

Inflation stood at 8.2% in September compared to a year ago, according to the latest government data. The rise in food prices was even higher at 11.2%. Everything is getting more expensive – from container and labor costs to livestock feed.

Russia’s war in Ukraine has driven up energy prices and essential agricultural supplies have been cut off by Western government sanctions in response to the war. Additionally, the pandemic has disrupted global supply chains and labor costs have increased due to labor shortages. The heat and extreme weather conditions of the past year have further interrupted agricultural production.

“The cost of groceries has increased by 13% over the last 12 months, which means that a trip to the supermarket for $100 in September 2021 cost $113 in September 2022,” Reznickova pointed out in her blog post. “While $13 may not seem like much, it can have a big impact in a country where 13.5 million households struggled last year to put food on the table.”

“SNAP is not reacting to rapid inflation like what we’ve seen this year,” she added.

Although inflation remains a major concern for voters, regardless of the results of the midterm elections, there is little Congress can do to lower food prices, Waxman said. There is no quick fix, she added.

American households are drawing on their savings to pay their bills and reducing their spending. Some families told MarketWatch they couldn’t afford meat and instead were forced to turn to cheaper options such as beans.

Families with children and low-income households have been hardest hit by rising food prices. A mother of five living in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, told MarketWatch that the family no longer had large sit-down dinners because the ingredients were now too expensive.

And a mom who works part-time as a parent outreach director in Detroit told MarketWatch that, for the first time, her SNAP benefits weren’t enough to cover the cost of food for her and her son. . In order to get by, she made partial payments on the utility bill.

The Federal Reserve’s role remains critical in controlling inflation with its series of interest rate hikes, and elected officials must be careful not to undermine those efforts, said Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst at the finance website Personal Bankrate.

But getting food on the table remains a priority, he said. “If it was done correctly, it would be understood that there might be a cost, but it would be an acceptable cost,” Hamrick told MarketWatch, “because we are ultimately talking about a humanitarian concern.”

For some, the solution – if it exists – remains clear. “The Farm Bill, due for reauthorization in 2023, is our best chance to address the interrelated causes of food and nutrition insecurity, as it touches every aspect of our food and agricultural system,” Reznickova added.

“Reimagined, it can increase access to nutritious food by increasing investment in nutrition and hunger programs,” she said, “while addressing the root causes of food insecurity. food and nutrition by promoting racial justice for farmers and agricultural workers and fair competition in the food industry.”

-Zoe Han


(END) Dow Jones Newswire

11-09-22 1346ET

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Julio V. Miller