Farm Bill Targets Food Stamps -- But Not Handouts to Well-Off Farmers

by | June 6, 2018

By Evan Halper

As more than a million Americans face losing food stamps under President Trump's vision for reauthorizing the farm bill, his vow to wean families off dependence doesn't apply to thousands of others who have been relying much of their adult lives on payments from the government's sprawling agriculture program.

And many of those farmers have been getting aid for far longer than the average 10 months that a food stamp recipient gets help. In fact, 27,930 farmers have been collecting for 32 years, a report released Wednesday shows. The assistance is supposed to keep their farming operations afloat, but it flows in good years and bad.

It is well known that the farm bill long ago strayed from its Dust Bowl roots, when the temporary subsidies were established to help farming operations survive brutal drought and other such catastrophic events.

But the new data compiled by the advocacy organization Environmental Working Group are setting off fresh charges that food stamps are not the only form of welfare bankrolled under the bill.

"We are struggling to understand how some of these operations manage to get paid every single year," said Scott Faber, vice president of government affairs at the group. "It is remarkable that 28,000 people have managed to get a check every year for 32 years."

Not all of the recipients live and work on hardscrabble farms. Some are managing operations that are quite lucrative, according to the report. At least 245 of them appear to live far from where the cotton, corn, wheat and other subsidy-eligible commodities are grown; they are in urban locations such as Santa Monica and the Napa Valley's St. Helena. While most of the recipients are in the Midwest and Texas, there are 87 Californians who have been collecting farm bill checks since the mid-1980s. Their operations span the entire state, and range from big, industrial farms to the hobby farms of wealthy individuals.

The Newton Bros. cotton farming operation in Stratford, Calif., has collected the most of the subsidies in the state, totaling more than $5.7 million over the 32 years, according to the group. Messages left there and at several other of the California farms that received the payments were not immediately returned.

Such long-running payments are coming under scrutiny at a time when the White House and many congressional Republicans are aiming to substantially cut food stamps, which are also authorized by the farm bill. A House measure that narrowly failed last month would cut benefits provided by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, by $9 billion over the next 10 years. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that would result in 1.2 million people losing access to food stamps.

The bill failed after Democrats refused to support the food stamp cuts and several in the GOP also defected, some because they objected to the farming subsidies. "Taking away money from taxpayers to inflate the price of their own groceries was never a good idea," said Northern California Republican Rep. Tom McClintock, who wants to cut all the subsidies, including those for food stamps. The White House is continuing to push for the food stamp cuts as the farm bill discussion moves over to the Senate.

Under the plan favored by Republicans, new work requirements would kick in, mandating at least 20 hours of work per week or participation in a job training program for most adults in the program, including those caring for children over the age of 6. The California State Assn. of Counties and the County Welfare Directors Assn. of California warned in a letter to Congress that the proposal would have exactly the opposite of the intended effect, by imposing punitive penalties that undercut efforts already underway to help food stamp recipients find and keep jobs.

"Instead of reducing food insecurity, the policies will increase it for many families," their letter said. "Most SNAP households can and do work. The basic premise underlying the punitive work requirement supports the false narrative that households don't work because they would rather have a relatively small benefit."

The Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously to oppose the cuts, which it warned would "devastate disadvantaged communities." One in 10 Californians uses food stamps. Some 85,000 would immediately lose their benefits under the House GOP plan, which eliminates a provision allowing states to provide food stamps to families with incomes slightly above the federal eligibility limit.

None of the proposals supported by congressional leadership target the payments going to the nearly 28,000 farming families who have been collecting for decades. Farming industry groups say those subsidies are not wasteful government handouts, but essential assistance to keep an industry thriving and the world fed.

"The issue with agriculture is [that] Mother Nature is your business partner," said John Newton, director of market intelligence for the American Farm Bureau Federation. "It is incredibly risky. When you take out these incredibly large loans to buy the seed, the fertilizer, to put crops in the ground, you don't know what you will get at end of the harvest. You don't know if there will be rain or flood or drought. Many farmers take out millions of dollars a year every single year to put a crop in the ground. They have a lot of risk."

Newton said many of the payments go to subsidize crop insurance, which mitigates the risk farmers could lose everything if the weather does not cooperate. They also go to payments to farmers when the price of their crops falls so low as to threaten the viability of their businesses.

Critics question why any farm would need such bailouts for 32 years straight.

"There is a bunch of nonsense being claimed," said Vincent Smith, director of agriculture studies at the American Enterprise Institute. "This claim -- that absent these subsidies there will be a farming crisis and lots of farms will go bankrupt -- is implausible.

"These are not the Joads getting this money," he said, referring to the fictional family impoverished by the Dust Bowl in the novel "The Grapes of Wrath."

In some cases, it is members of Congress. While lawmakers do not appear to be among those who have been getting payments for 32 years straight, several have collected handsome amounts of subsidies thanks to the farm bill -- some while serving in Congress, the report found.

Among them is Rep. Vicky Hartzler, a Missouri Republican who champions the tougher food stamp rules, vowing that they would move impoverished Americans into self-sufficiency. Hartzler, according to the Environmental Working Group, is also the recipient of nearly $1 million in farm subsidies.

(c)2018 the Los Angeles Times