Reform food programs in farm bill

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Like many other line-items in the federal budget, food stamp spending is skyrocketing. Since President Obama took office, the amount that the federal government spends on SNAP has more than doubled. Last year, the federal government spent over $78 billion on the program alone. Although high unemployment is one driver of the growth in food stamp spending, it’s not the only one. The 2002 and 2008 farm bills lowered the eligibility threshold; meanwhile, state governments removed barriers like asset tests to sweep even more people into the program.

A coalition of 27 organizations representing millions of Americans recently sent a letter to Capitol Hill, outlining several fixes to the food welfare provisions the bill. These reforms would bring significant savings to food components of the farm, while continuing to provide a basic social safety net for the truly needy in our society.

One reform that they recommend is replacing the annual appropriation with a block grant for states. This would give states an incentive to control costs. This is an improvement over current policy, in which states have an incentive to procure as many federal dollars as possible. Another fix would be to apply income and asset tests to categorically eligible households. According to the Congressional Budget Office, adding income and asset tests to categorical eligibility requirements would trim average annual outlays by $12 billion over 10 years.

The letter includes more general reforms too, such as rolling back Farm Bill spending to FY 2008 levels: Federal outlays for nutrition programs in 2008 were $37.6 billion; in 2013, they will total $82 billion. Returning spending to FY 2008 levels would strike a balance between fiscal responsibility and providing a reasonable social safety net.

Lastly and most simply, the coalition partners recommend severing the SNAP title from the rest of the farm bill. Food welfare is unrelated to the agricultural subsidies contained in the rest of the bill and it deserves its own treatment in stand-alone legislation. No more combining food programs with agricultural subsidies in order to secure votes.

It’s easy to pledge to rein in spending in media interviews and in campaign speeches, but it’s another thing to put this into practice. Conservatives in Congress can deliver on their promises to rein in spending when it takes up the farm bill later this year by including some or all of these reforms to nutrition programs. Supporting unchecked spending levels is not why their constituents sent them to Washington.


Harbin is a federal policy analyst at Americans For Prosperity.