D.C. Public Schools is abandoning longtime school food provider Chartwells in the wake of allegations of poor food quality and fraud, and it's moving forward with new vendors for 2016. But questions remain about the selection process and future oversight.
Congressional leaders are meeting again to try to hash out differences over the farm bill, stalled since early summer over food stamps, now known as SNAP benefits. Senate legislation calls for $4.5 billion in cuts, while a House bill calls for ten times that, $40 billion. Poverty groups say big cuts will devastate those already bracing for a hit to benefits starting Nov. 1, when a post-recession boost in SNAP funding expires. We examine the political and policy issues.
- Stacy Dean Vice President for Food Assistance Policy, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities
- Philip Brasher Editor of CQ’s Executive Briefing on Agriculture and Food
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, a Best Selling author in her native Iran Goli Taraghi has a collection of stories in English. Her fiction explores life after the Iranian Revolution for those who stayed and those who left. But first, one article described it as the most important bill you've never heard of. Members of the House and Senate met yesterday to finally get back to work on the farm bill.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe bill's been in limbo for months stalled in a battle over drastic cuts to food stamps now known as SNAP benefits. The House and Senate are both proposing cuts but they're miles apart on just how much the numbers has to shrink. Joining us to discuss this is Stacy Dean, vice-president for Food Assistance Policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Stacy Dean, good to see you again.
MS. STACY DEANGood to see you. Thanks for having me.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Philip Brasher. He is editor of CQ's Executive Briefing on Agriculture and Food. Philip Brasher, thank you for joining us.
MR. PHILIP BRASHERGreat to be here.
NNAMDIYou too can join us, the conversation that is. Give us a call at 800-433-8850. Have you been following the farm debate? Are you concerned about what cuts to food stamps now known as SNAP benefits will mean for needy families? Give us a call, 800-433-8850 or send email to email@example.com. Phil, let's start with a little background. The farm bill has been approved on a five-year basis since 1965. Can you remind us of what the farm bill entails and why it's such an important piece of legislation?
BRASHERWell, it does several things, Kojo. First of all, and what people think about a farm bill is it provides income support for farmers -- most of the farmers to grow grain, cotton, crops like that. It also provides the assistance to fruit and vegetable growers now. And that's something that's occurred in recent years. It also does a number of things to -- in terms of improving conservation of our natural resources, primarily our land. There are programs to take environmentally-sensitive land, land next to streams and lakes out of production so you don't get the runoff into our drinking water supplies and our rivers.
BRASHERAnd the biggest part of the farm bill now in terms of the spending is the food stamp program. That's about close to 80 percent of the money that -- the cost of the bill. Years ago, members of congress who supported these two aspects of the program, the agricultural part and the nutrition part, decided the best way to make sure that both of them could pass and get through congress was to put them together. And so they've been together ever since.
NNAMDIHouse and Senate lawmakers met yesterday to restart negotiations on the bill. This is just the beginning but what do we know about those negotiations?
BRASHERWell, they had a formal meeting tomorrow where they all made opening statements. Some of them laid down their priorities. A lot of them just made general statements. But that may be the last meeting for quite a while. Because the real negotiations go on behind the scenes because these are fairly high-stakes negotiations that involve different sectors, involve different regions of the country. And they're all trying to get the biggest piece of the pie that they can.
BRASHERAnd one part that we want to talk about here in particular is the food stamp program and the cuts that the Republicans in particular want to make to that. That's probably an issue that's going to be decided by the leaders in Congress and presumably the White House as well.
NNAMDIStacy, negotiations over the summer failed when the House and Senate could not agree on a bill. And food stamps now, as we said twice already known as SNAP benefits, were at the center of that fight. Can you talk about what happened and where it stands now?
DEANWell, what's ultimately happened, what the conference is going to be negotiating is the Senate-passed farm bill, which included a number of positive reforms to the program, but also unfortunately, a little over $4 billion in cuts over the next ten years. And the house version, which is just a very extreme and harsh proposal, would cut $40 billion from the program. And those savings or reductions come from terminating nearly 4 million people from the program. And from imposing benefit cuts to still many more.
NNAMDIWe're talking about $40 billion, cutting 4 million people from the program. That includes, it is my understanding, a lot of veterans.
DEANYes. There's nearly a million veterans on the program, 22 million children, many working families and seniors. And here in the district it's a hugely important program. Half of our district's children are SNAP participants. And so the outcome of the farm bill, while they might not normally think is an important issue to them because of not a strong farm economy here in D.C., the fate of food stamps is crucial to our local children.
NNAMDIBefore we get into the negotiations over the farm bill, there's a date that's looming for those who rely on food stamps. Can you talk about what happens tomorrow, November 1?
DEANThat's right. I'm really glad you pointed that out. Tomorrow unfortunately every single participant on the food stamp program, so nearly $48 million Americans or one in seven Americans, are going to see their food stamp benefits cut. The amount that they receive each month is going to go down, and that's because in 2009 when congress passed a temporary measure to help stimulate the economy called the Recovery Act, they temporarily increased SNAP benefits. And unfortunately, since then congress has decided that rather than let the SNAP increase gradually fade away, that they are having it end abruptly tomorrow.
NNAMDIAnd what will be the impact of that expiration of the increase?
DEANWell, it's very significant to, you know, the families that rely upon SNAP. So, for example, all families of three will see their monthly benefits go down by $29. Now that may not sound like a lot to some of your listeners, but for folks who are really living meal to meal, that is several days worth of food. And, you know, for example, for a mom with two kids who just struggles to put food on the table each day it will be a radical change. And we worry very much about the impacts on families and children.
NNAMDIJust on a point of information, for those who want more information about what to expect, where can they go to find that information?
DEANWell, locally the D.C. Hunger Solutions has a fantastic very short video that explains the cuts and where they can seek additional help. There's also information on USDA's website. And many of your local food banks and food pantries will have information about how they can help in the short run. But just to be clear, private charity cannot make up this difference. Our families will be experiencing a reduction in help.
NNAMDIWe're talking about the farm bill in congress and the progress or lack thereof that it's making with Stacy Dean, vice-president for Food Assistance Policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Also joining us in studio is Philip Brasher. He is editor of CQ's Executive Briefing on Agriculture and Food. You can call us at 800-433-8850. Do you think that SNAP benefits need reform along the lines of the welfare reform of the 1990s, 800-433-8850?
NNAMDIGetting back to the farm bill, Phil, this has historically been a bipartisan piece of legislation. There's always been something in it for everyone. Can you talk a little bit about that and how it's worked in the past and why this time around it seems to be different?
BRASHERWell, there are two big differences this time. One, you have the House controlled by Republicans, the Senate controlled by Democrats. You have a congress that's more polarized than it's ever been. These Republicans that control the House are more conservative than many of the Republicans in the House in the past. The other -- and the last time the bill was written we had -- it was a Democratic congress.
BRASHERThe other big difference is that there's not extra money to spend. When there is more money to spend, it's real easy to do trades and it's more -- in the past congress has put more money into the nutrition programs. They put more money into the farm programs. That makes it easier to do deals. This time they are trying to cut.
BRASHERThe Senate bill would cut a total of about 2 percent in total spending over ten years. The House bill cuts about 5 percent. The House bill also takes a much -- takes about the same amount out of -- on a percentage basis out of nutrition as it does out of agriculture as opposed to the Senate bill which puts more of its -- a higher percentage of its cuts in the rest -- in the agriculture part of the bill.
NNAMDIIn the past, agri business has signed on to the bill because agri business knew that it had obvious benefits and that if it's signed on to the bill then there would also be urban support or support from representatives from urban districts for the proposal. Stacy Dean, what's your view of the difference this time around?
DEANWell, the difference is there's very limited support for deep cuts to the SNAP program. The Senate -- I'm sorry, the House package that included the deep SNAP cuts passed with no Democratic votes and actually lost a few Republican votes. It was a real squeaker in terms of its passage. And so I think moving forward, farm bills are complex bills. They represent regional politics and also the needs of many Americans is, I think what our conference chairs are going to keep asking themselves. Does this change get me any more votes? And I don't think cutting SNAP deeply helps put a farm bill over the finish line.
NNAMDIHere is Greg in Washington, D.C. Greg, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
GREGHi. Yeah, this is a question for Ms. Dean. You all had said that the Republican proposal will cut 4 million people off of SNAP. And I think I read in your organization that it's actually worse than that. It's 4 million the first year and then, like, 3 million per year after that over the ten years. And then there's just one other quick thing. I think I read something about a study by a Hilary Hoynes that showed how SNAP -- when kids have access to it when they're young, their adult outcomes, they actually show more financial independence as opposed to dependence. Which is sort of the stereotype that we hear. So I wondered if she could speak to that.
DEANSure. Thank you. The 4 million folks who would be terminated are those -- you're right, would be cut off immediately as a result of the proposals put forward by the House. The numbers could go larger over time given some flexibilities that are in the bill with respect to cutting off individuals. I don't think we assign a number to that but we are concerned that it would be even larger than the 4 million. And you point out a fantastic study by Hilary Hoynes that did look at the rollout of the food stamp program in the late '70s. At the time it wasn't a national program. Some counties had it, some didn't.
DEANAnd so she was able to look at the outcomes for children on a number of dimensions, both health as well as long term financial independence, or wellbeing as you point out. And showed that the having SNAP in your area and having been a participant on it resulted in much better outcomes for children. So the program is -- both meets immediate needs and is a wonderful investment in our long term future.;
NNAMDIAnother issue, Philip Brasher, is that the SNAP benefit program has grown so dramatically, isn't it?
BRASHERYes. it -- well, it has been growing significantly for the past decade. It really took off -- I believe doubled in the back costs since 2008. A big part of that was the economy. But the administration, and not just the administration but previous administrations have been working hard to get the message out and to -- to people who are eligible for food stamps to sign up for them. And more people have been doing that.
BRASHERAnd that's one of the things that has really been criticized by some Republicans as some of the -- what they see as recruitment efforts by this administration. And there are actually some provisions in the House bill to try to cut back on that.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation on food assistance and update on what's going on in the Congress. If you've called, stay on the line. We will get to your calls. The number's 800-433-8850. You can also send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Are you concerned about what cuts to food stamps will mean for needy families? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation on the farm bill currently making its way or not through the congress. We're talking with Philip Brasher. He is editor of CQ's Executive Briefing on Agriculture and Food. Stacy Dean is vice-president for Food Assistance Policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Phil, what also seems to be an issue this year is the price tag, half a trillion dollars as well as the extreme polarization in congress this time around. Can you talk about that?
BRASHERYes. The costs, that's a ten-year figure. It's almost -- it's hard to get your arms around it. It's a ten-year estimate of the cost of the food stamp program, which is close to 80 percent of the bill, plus all of the farm programs and conservation and everything else. So the big fights though, as these negotiators try to write a final bill, is going to be over a lot of rules within these programs and also over the cuts to -- as we've been talking about -- to the nutrition assistance.
NNAMDIStacy, another piece of the farm bill involves emergency food assistance. First, can you explain what that is and how it works?
DEANSure. The federal government provides a limited amount of money to food banks throughout the country to help them with their basic operations. The vast majority of food banks get by with private charitable donations. But the USDA gives them a grant each year, both to help with purchases of commodities and some of their basic overhead costs.
DEANAnd then another element is that USDA has the ability, when the price of a commodity, for example, has fallen dramatically, to go in and purchase that commodity to ensure that farmers have a basic income. And then they process that food and can food it out to the emergency food network and also through our school meals program.
NNAMDIBoth bills would increase spending on emergency food aid. Why amidst such pressure to cut is there a proposal to increase spending on anything?
DEANWell, I think what the increases meant to help food banks and the emergency food network through what has been an incredibly difficult time for them with the recession, high levels of unemployment and increased need, they are just overwhelmed. What I thought your question was going to be is why increase funding to food banks, and on a relatively limited basis at the same time we would be cutting SNAP by billions of dollars or terminating food assistance...
NNAMDIThat was the intention of my question.
DEAN...or terminating food assistance to 4 million people. There's no way that private charity can make up the difference of the SNAP cuts through private charity. And you'll see Feeding America, the representative group of our food bank network, is one of the strongest opponents to the cuts to SNAP. They know what it means to their local network.
NNAMDISo we go to Nichole in Falls Church, Va. Nichole, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NICHOLEHi. Thanks for taking my call. I was wondering as citizens what can we do to help those who will be affected by the cuts to SNAP other then contacting our lawmakers and saying that we don't want them to make these cuts. Would donating to food banks be the best way to help or is there some other way we can help?
DEANWell, I think the best way to help is what you just said, and that is to engage your lawmakers on what -- your concerns and ask them to oppose any such cuts. And then I think second, you point to -- your local charities and food banks and food pantries will always be looking for your help. First and foremost I think they can use your cash to help put it to good use. But of course they would want your time and help if that's available for you to give.
NNAMDIThank you for your call. Phil, there are also eligibility requirements that are an issue in the negotiations around food stamps or SNAP benefits. Can you talk about that?
BRASHERRight. You made a good point at the beginning, Kojo, in that there is an effort here on behalf of some members of the House, particularly the Majority Leader Eric Cantor and some of the other conservatives. To go back and sort of revisit the 1996 Welfare Reform law...
NNAMDIYou say this is Welfare Reform part two.
BRASHERRight. And some of them would like to do that with this bill. And so they are trying in various ways to impose and tighten work requirements on SNAP beneficiaries. And there is one that's particularly upset the Democrats in the House because it would in effect give -- allow states that do tighten work requirements incentive to do so by letting them keep half the money that's saved. Essentially giving them incentive to reduce their food stamp rules.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Bruce in Herndon. "Someone recently circulated a claim that there's a lot of churn in the SNAP program, that people enter and leave the program all the time but only a small percentage of recipients are long term participants. What can your guests tell us about this aspect of the program?" Before you respond, I think Steve in Washington, D.C. has a question along similar lines. Steve, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
STEVEOkay. Thank you. Yeah, I had a question about getting off of food stamps. Is there some rule that allows people to gradually increase their income without dramatically cutting access to food stamps so that it allows people to try to get out of the situation without cutting them off too quickly?
NNAMDIThink of it as a two-part question, Stacy.
DEANSo first in response to your -- the first question, yes. Most participants come on, participate for a very short period of time and leave. And some might cycle back later when they experience unemployment or some other change in their life that requires temporary help of the program. There are of course some who do stay on the program longer. That group is almost -- is largely made up of low-income seniors whose income is permanently low. And we wouldn't expect them to have a way to change their circumstances or, for example, individuals with disabilities. They too are in a permanently low-income situation and the program is there to supplement their income.
DEANIn terms of the second callers question -- or sorry, the second question, there are some elements of the program that are what we call these earnings disregards. We disregard your income for a period of time so that it makes sense to go to work or to increase your earnings. We don't want folks to think that if they take a job or work more hours that they're overall monthly income between their earnings and SNAP will go down. That would be a huge mistake. So there are some aspects to that. And of course we'd like to see them strengthened.
NNAMDIPhil Brasher, it seems as though there are still serious policy differences at work here. What are the hopes for some kind of agreement?
BRASHEROn the overall bill?
BRASHERWell, there is this whole issue of nutrition assistance and nutrition spending. As I said, I think that's an issue that's going to have to be settled by the congressional leaders and probably with some input from the White House. There are some major issues though within the bill and particularly the programs that support farm income. There's some major issues, for example, surrounding crop insurance, which is a heavily subsidized program that the farmers really like. And it has really grown in recent years.
BRASHERThere are very few restrictions that come with that -- with crop insurance. There are no restrictions on how you farm your land. There's no restrictions on how much land you can get crop insurance for. There are some provisions in the Senate bill and -- that would put some requirements into crop insurance. And out of concern that more and more very large farms are going to stop taking the conventional crop subsidies and start relying on crop insurance in part because it doesn't have a lot of the restrictions.
NNAMDIWhat's the timeline for negotiations on the farm bill?
BRASHERWell, they have a theoretical deadline of the end of the year, because at that point a permanent law is in place that would require the Agriculture Department to start raising the price of milk going into next year, this law. And it is also in place for some other commodities. It was there to ensure that congress could not allow farm programs to go away, that they would pass new programs. Now it's also -- it's possible that congress could do another extension of the old 2008 farm law or it could do -- either for a very short term or for a longer term.
NNAMDIOn now to Eric in Potomac, Md. who I think, Stacy Dean, has a question directly related to Budget and Policy Priorities. Eric's call dropped off but what he wanted to ask about was the fact that he asserts that, "It's easy for us to bailout Wall Street and big companies in other countries. Shouldn't we want to invest in our own citizens first?" I characterize it as a question related to Budget and Policy Priorities. That's what our caller Eric seemed to be suggesting.
DEANWell, I think that's right. We do have long term deficit issues. I think that it's right for congress to want to get our fiscal house in order. But the values you bring to that discussion and the principles that you apply are crucial. And we would argue that it is possible to get our fiscal house in order without increasing poverty and hunger. And unfortunately, I think that's what the farm bill -- that's what -- those are some of the key choices in front of the farm bill negotiators.
NNAMDIAnd what would you say to this Tweet from Amber who asserts, "Yes, we need SNAP reform. The conversation always uses scare tactics as in what about the children." Do we in fact need SNAP reform?
DEANI think that oversight of the program and constantly looking at it for ways to improve its efficiency and effectiveness are absolutely valid. And both bills have some elements of that. But I don't think terminating benefits to 4 million people is reform.
NNAMDIPhil Brasher, there's been a great deal of lobbying in recent weeks by groups hoping to influence the outcome. What are some of the other pieces of the farm bill we should be keeping an eye on?
BRASHERWell, I mentioned the crop insurance issue because that is one of the biggest ones. And in part because there are already some large farming operations that are switching from conventional subsidies into crop insurance in part because it doesn't come with the restrictions on how they use their land. And there's no limit on how much insurance they can get, how much acreage they can cover. So that's going to be a very, very big issue and a lot of money's going to be spent lobbying -- and it already has been spent on that issue.
BRASHERThere's a big issue on how we -- how the government supports dairy farmers and whether they create a supply management program for milk. And there's issues about how we subsidize our grain and soy bean farmers going forward. And this is really a regional issue. And it's a matter of dividing up the money. And each commodity -- the farmers of each crop want to get as much of that support as they can.
NNAMDIAnother reason we should be keeping an eye on the farm bill. Philip Brasher is editor of CQ's Executive Briefing on Agriculture and Food. Phil Basher, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd Stacey Dean is vice-president for Food Assistance Policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Stacy, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, author Goli Taraghi, her collection of stories explore life after the Iranian Revolution for those who stayed and for those who left. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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