FarmPolicy

August 23, 2019

House Ag Committee Hearing: SNAP (Food Stamps)

Categories: Farm Bill /Nutrition

At a House Agriculture Committee hearing on Wednesday that focused on the SNAP program and nutrition issues, Chairman Mike Conaway (R., Tex.) indicated that, “[The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)] is the largest program under the Committee’s jurisdiction, and today’s hearing marks the beginning of a top-to-bottom review of the program. We will conduct this review without preconceived notions and with a commitment to strengthening the program so it can serve as a tool to help individuals move up the economic ladder.”

Chairman Conaway added that, “We can all agree that no one ought to go hungry in America, and SNAP is essential in protecting the most vulnerable citizens during tough times. For many it is a vital lifeline to keeping food on the table. What we don’t want is for this program to hold people back from achieving their potential. I believe there is a role for SNAP, but we need to have a complete and clear understanding of its mission and purpose.”

Robert Greenstein, President of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and University of Maryland Professor Douglas J. Besharov were the only two witnesses at Wednesday’s hearing.

In prepared testimony, Prof. Besharov noted that, “I applaud this committee’s multi-faceted re-examination of the program, its past, present, and future. Based on my research and analysis, I think the key challenge is to modernize a massive program that started as a small program of food assistance to become the primary US program of income support.”

Prof. Besharov added that, “That would mean coordinating the SNAP program with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Unemployment Insurance, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), and the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and other tax credits. In doing so, there should be an effort to rationalize the current patchwork of programs that make up the US safety-net in a way that balances what looks to be long-term weak demand for labor economic with the need to minimize the work and marriage disincentives in current law.”

Prof. Besharov pointed out that, “Today, instead of hunger, the central nutritional problem facing the poor, indeed all Americans, is not too little food but, rather too much—or at least too many calories. Although there are still some pockets of real hunger in America, they are predominantly among populations with behavioral or emotional problems.”

In his testimony, Prof. Besharov explained that, “As I have described, states are financially and politically rewarded when they move people off UI and TANF (programs with at least some activation requirements) and on to SNAP. This incentive was not created deliberately, but, rather, is a historic accident of how and when the programs were established…[R]eal reform probably requires that the states be made financial partners of the federal government. States should have a more direct financial stake in the proper governance of SNAP programs, including of eligibility determinations. Given that all program funds come from the federal government, a substantial liberalization of eligibility determinations was predictable. State officials have little reason to be cost conscious—as long as program funds seem available.”

During the discussion portion of Wednesday’s hearing, House Ag Nutrition Subcommittee Chairwoman Jackie Walorski (R., Ind.) had this exchange with Prof. Besharov:

Rep. Walorski: “And I guess as we’ve talked about today, we’ve talked about the issue of how do families, how do single moms and how do underemployed families pay for food, and healthcare, and lodging, and daycare, how does all this happen. And my question is, when they finally get to a point where they have figured all this out, what then does the government do to really help these families?

“Has the SNAP program historically been just a Band-Aid to pass them on to the next…somebody else to deal with them or is there a sense that, you know, there’s an opportunity to actually look at what this government can do, should do, and actually getting real help to the financial challenges and how this happened to begin with? So I guess just historically, where do you see this? Has this always just been a Band-Aid to try to get people along or is there a long-term solution that’s been talked about?

Prof. Besharov: “Well, I think the world’s changed. Before 1996 we would have had this conversation about TANF. And what happened was when the Congress reformed TANF and the case loads went way down, the SNAP case loads, over time, over a 20 year period, went up. And as I said in my testimony, some people on the right, especially, call SNAP welfare 2.0, which is this is the new version of that.

The difference is that within the SNAP program, the states don’t have an incentive to really reform, to provide those kinds of uplifting services because of the formula. The formula is if a state wants to provide services to people in your district in Indiana, it has to pay 50% of the cost, but if it wants to just give out SNAP benefits, it only pays the administrative costs, and those are very low.

So my recommendation is that whatever the incentive is, whether it’s giving the states a bounty every time they get somebody from SNAP a job or an advanced degree or whatever, give them a financial incentive to help the people on SNAP. It’s not there now.”

A video replay of Rep. Walorski’s complete remarks at Wednesday’s hearing can be seen here:

Subcommittee Chairwoman Warloski also made the following tweet on Wednesday:

In his prepared remarks, Mr. Greenstein noted that, “As of the end of 2014, SNAP was helping more than 46 million low-income Americans to afford a nutritionally adequate diet by providing them with benefits via a debit card that can be used only to purchase food. The benefits are relatively modest. SNAP participants receive an average benefit of $1.42 per person per meal.”

Mr. Greenstein added that, “SNAP targets benefits on those most in need and least able to afford an adequate diet. Its benefit formula considers a household’s income level, along with its essential expenses such as rent, medicine, and child care needed to work. Although a family’s income is the most important factor affecting its ability to purchase food, it is not the only factor; a family whose rent and utility costs consume two-thirds of its income will have less money to buy food than a family that has the same income but receives a rental voucher to cover a portion of its rental costs.

“The program’s targeting of benefits adds some complexity. However, it helps to ensure that SNAP provides the largest levels of assistance to the poorest families with the greatest needs, and lesser assistance to those whose level of need is less severe.”

Mr. Greenstein pointed to research that “found that adults who had access to food stamps as young children had an 18 percentage point higher high school graduation rate than the children who hadn’t had access to food stamps. The children with access to food stamps also had significantly lower rates of ‘metabolic syndrome‘ (obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes) and better health in adulthood. In addition, women who had access to food stamps as young children had higher earnings and lower rates of welfare receipt in adulthood.”

Mr. Greenstein also pointed out that, “SNAP error rates now stand at record lows. Fewer than 1 percent of SNAP benefits are issued to households that do not meet all of the program’s eligibility requirements.”

Also at Wednesday’s hearing, House Ag Nutrition Subcommittee ranking member Jim McGovern (D., Mass.) raised questions about the hearing, noting that: “You know, today’s hearing is described as the start of a top to bottom review of SNAP, and I’m certainly a proponent of rigorous oversight of all programs. But I have to say, at the beginning, I find it a little bit curious that we seem to be singling out SNAP for review, especially at a time when the most recent CBO projections show that SNAP case loads and spending is moving in a downward direction, and CBO also says that payments to farmers could be nearly $5 billion more than was originally expected in the farm bill. I don’t know why we’re not beginning with a top to bottom review of that, but

“And I appreciate you being here. And I hope, if we’re going to do a top to bottom review, that we also, at some point, have a panel of beneficiaries, people who are on the program, who can testify firsthand what works and what doesn’t work. And maybe we should also have someone from [the Food and Nutrition Service] here as well, because they administer the program. I hope that this is not going to be an exercise in another attack against poor people because I fear I’ve seen this movie before, and I didn’t like it the first time. But it is what it is.”

Keith Good

Wednesday Morning Update: Senate Ag Committee Farm Bill Hearing, Ag Economy; Trade; Budget; and, Biofuels

Policy Issues- Senate Ag Committee Hearing; House Ag Committee Hearing Today

In two separate panels, agricultural producers and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack testified before the Senate Agriculture Committee on the implementation of  last year’s Farm Bill Tuesday morning.

A FarmPolicy.com summary and overview of the hearing is available here.

AP writer Mary Clare Jalonick reported on Tuesday that, “Congressional Republicans are laying the groundwork for an overhaul of the nation’s food stamp program, trying again after an unsuccessful attempt two years ago.

“House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said Tuesday that his panel is starting a comprehensive, multiyear review of the program to see what’s working. He said ‘either huge reforms or small reforms’ could come from that, though he wouldn’t detail what those might be.

“Conaway says a 2013 GOP effort to cut food stamps ‘didn’t resonate well’ because Republicans didn’t spell out why it was important. House Republican leaders tried unsuccessfully to cut the program by 5 percent annually by passing a bill with broad new work requirements.”

The AP article noted that, “Some Democrats say they are wary of the review process. Agriculture Committee member James McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat who is a longtime advocate for food stamps, said he wonders why the SNAP program is singled out for review and not expensive farm programs.

“‘I am deeply concerned about this,’ McGovern said. ‘This is a program that by and large works.’”

Meanwhile, David Pierson reported yesterday at the Los Angeles Times Online that, “An estimated 9 million people are sickened and 1,000 killed by food-borne illnesses in the U.S. each year, but until now officials were unable to pinpoint which foods were most likely to blame.

“In a report released Tuesday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Food and Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service detailed the sources of the most common food-borne illnesses with the aim of improving food safety and policy.”

The LA Times article noted that, “Among the findings: More than 80% of E. coli O157 cases were attributed to beef or crops such as leafy vegetables.

“About 75% of campylobacter illnesses were linked to dairy (66%), particularly raw milk dairy, and chicken (8%).

“More than 80% of listeria illnesses were attributed to fruit (50%) and dairy (31%).”

 

Agricultural Economy

Also on Tuesday, USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service released its annual U.S. Crop Values Summary, a link to the complete report along with highlights regarding corn and soybeans can also be found at FarmPolicy.com.

Tuesday’s Los Angeles Times contained an article highlighting ongoing drought concerns California. The article included this quote from Bill Patzert, a climatologist with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory: “If you think we’ve turned around on the drought, stop smoking whatever you’re smoking.”

Details on this article, as well as Reuters news updates that focused on agricultural issues in Brazil, Ukraine, and Russia have been posted here.

And Jon Hilsenrath reported on the front page of today’s Wall Street Journal that, “Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen, sounding upbeat about the economy, laid the groundwork for interest-rate increases later this year.

“‘The employment situation in the United States has been improving on many dimensions,’ Ms. Yellen told the Senate Banking Committee on Tuesday, her first of two days of semiannual testimony before lawmakers. Spending and production had increased at a ‘solid rate,’ she added, and should remain strong enough to keep bringing unemployment down.”

 

Trade Issues (TPA, TPP); West Coast Ports

And in trade related news, William Mauldin reported in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal that, “Lawmakers from both parties are trying to strike a difficult balance as they wrangle over the final intricacies of a bill that would expedite consideration of trade deals.

“House and Senate leaders crafting the so-called fast-track bill want to include sweeteners to attract skeptical Democrats, including rules to allow lawmakers greater access to the details of continuing trade negotiations.

“But supporters fear too many provisions friendly to Democrats could alienate Republicans and the business community, or even put a major Pacific trade deal at risk when it comes up for a final vote. The U.S., Japan and 10 other Pacific Rim countries are hoping to agree to the final terms of the trade partnership in coming months.”

Mr. Mauldin explained that, “The bill’s authors—Sen. Orrin Hatch (R., Utah), Sen. Ron Wyden (D., Ore.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.)—are now fighting over how much leverage to give lawmakers to remove any coming trade deals from fast-track protection. That would subject the pacts to ordinary amendments and procedural delays.”

Reuters writer Krista Hughes reported on Tuesday that, “U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen warned Congress on Tuesday against a bid to crack down on currency cheats and said adding currency rules to trade deals could hobble monetary policy.

“Lawmakers have introduced legislation allowing firms to seek compensation for currency weakness overseas and some are also fighting to include a currency chapter in upcoming trade deals such as the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).”

Also on Tuesday, Reuters news indicated that, “A meeting aimed at sealing a Pacific trade deal has been called for April, Mexico’s economy minister said on Tuesday, adding he was optimistic it would be sealed in the first half of 2015.

“‘I am very optimistic that there will be good news for the TPP in the first half of this year,’ Ildefonso Guajardo told Reuters, referring to the Trans-Pacific Partnership.”

On the West Coast Port issue, Diana Marcum reported on Tuesday at the Los Angeles Times Online that, “An end to labor strife at West Coast ports should speed up cargo operations, but it may be too late to help California’s drought-weary nut and citrus farmers.

Citrus took the hardest hit. Oranges, many bound for Chinese New Year celebrations, sat decaying on ships, at docks and on the ground as a nine-month labor dispute snarled ports. Fieldworkers, packinghouse employees and truck drivers had their hours cut.”

The article added that, “Losses could reach as high as 50% of citrus exports, or $500 million, according to trade groups… [F]or California’s almond farmers and processors, the severe cargo backlogs have raised fears that foreign buyers could cancel contracts for almonds stuck in storage and buy from other countries.”

 

Budget

David Nakamura and Sean Sullivan reported on the front page of today’s Washington Post that, “The Senate moved closer Tuesday to a deal to avert a partial shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security, but the proposal faced an uncertain future in the House, where Republican leaders conspicuously refused to embrace it.

“Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters he was prepared to move swiftly to extend funding for DHS through the fiscal year in a bill that is not contingent on Republican demands to repeal President Obama’s executive actions on immigration.”

 

Biofuels

Bloomberg writer Mario Parker reported on Tuesday that, “Ethanol producers are cutting output after getting squeezed by the biggest drop in gasoline prices since 2008.

“Valero Energy Corp. and Green Plains Renewable Energy Inc., representing about 15 percent of U.S. capacity, have reduced operations as margins narrowed. At a typical mill in Illinois that makes ethanol from corn, profit margins have almost totally disappeared, compared with $1.33 a gallon a year ago, according to AgTrader Talk, a Clive, Iowa-based consulting company.”

Keith Good

Senate Ag Committee Farm Bill Hearing

At a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on Tuesday, lawmakers reviewed the implementation of the Farm Bill after one year and heard testimony from farmers and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

In his opening remarks, Chairman Pat Roberts (R., Kan.) indicated that, “As our first order of business it’s only right that we recognize and appreciate our leader of the past four years and the tremendous amount of good work she accomplished during a very difficult time.

Senator Stabenow is a dedicated and fierce leader of agriculture policy whose tenacity successfully carried a farm bill across the goal line when many believed it wouldn’t get done.”

(more…)