OEDEL: Our public trough

May 26, 2013 

The so-called “farm bill” is moving higher on the congressional agenda -- after having been kicked down the road in 2012 and then extended in 2013 along the lines of the 2008 farm bill as part of “fiscal cliff” avoidance. The farm bill will soon occupy the legislative front burner, as the extension expires Sept. 30.

Like many things in Washington, the bill is mislabeled to make it seem less politically controversial. In fact, the bill is more about food welfare than farming, with food welfare programs accounting for more than two-thirds of the total spending.

The farm bill’s biggest single item, about $76 billion in 2012, is the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly known as food stamps. In Georgia, SNAP distributes about $135 in plastic cash per month for each eligible person, spendable on all sorts of items, from candy to pork fat.

We obviously don’t want any citizens to starve, but SNAP fosters predictable medical conditions like diabetes and hypertension, invites a robust black market in EBT cards, and, when it becomes an accepted, permanent way of life, discourages marriage and work, incentivizes births by unmarried women, and generally cultivates a culture of dependence.

Back in the day, when former Macon Mayor Jack Ellis’ father was a small-scale, big-work farmer making a living for his large family by farming and bringing his produce into Macon for sale, Macon used to care more about real-life farming. Today, many of Macon’s citizens are less interested in farming than in harvesting quasi-cash from the farm bill.

USDA data from 2009 (the most recent county data available from the USDA) indicates that more than 24 percent of Bibb County residents, 40 percent of blacks and 7 percent of whites, received food stamps, compared with a national rate in 2012 of less than 15 percent.

Macon’s rates of food stamp usage have probably increased since 2009. Washington University professor Mark Rank found that 90 percent of black children nationwide will be on food stamps at least some time before they turn 20.

Thanks to SNAP and related programs, America’s poor aren’t so much beset by hunger as by malnutrition and obesity. No surprise, given that we’re paying poor people to eat subsidized, low-price foods that are intrinsically nutritionally dubious, like cheap, corn-fed chicken, beef and pork wallowing in fat, starch and corn syrup.

As to farming proper, the farm bill mostly would continue subsidizing large-scale, well-connected, industrial-style producers of corn, soybeans, rice, peanuts and cotton -- the last apparently needed to cover fatter fannies blooming from the other subsidies. Well-off corporate farmers, like some essentially permanent food stamp beneficiaries, seem content to park indefinitely at the public trough of governmental subsidies.

It’s politically impossible to shut down the free-flowing farm-bill trough. Hungry neighbors? Eight bucks for milk? Heaven forbid.

So the rival versions of the next farm bill look a lot like the last farm bill. The Republican-controlled House has a bill that would cut SNAP funding by about 2.5 percent. The Democratic-controlled Senate has a bill that would cut SNAP funding by about 0.5 percent. Strike up the band for bipartisanship. The two parties seem to acknowledge that SNAP is itself on the hefty side.

But the bigger point is that neither party is thinking seriously about the tired, problematic legislative recipes for food welfare and agricultural policy. Both are deeply flawed.

If we had real leaders in Washington, rather than politicians content largely to dish up the same old slop, we’d re-think these two subjects from a fresher perspective.

We’d supply better, healthier foods, to those really in need. We’d stop subsidizing the dubious eating habits of a staggering share of the population. We’d reintroduce diversity, competition and creativity into the farming business. We’d put Michelle Obama and Michael Pollan in charge of school lunches.

Instead, in the brewing farm bill “debate,” we’ll likely hear the left complain about hard-hearted right wingers, while the right will largely capitulate to the status quo. Short run, the impending debate about marginal funding adjustments will likely be trivial. Long run, re-upping on the farm bill will be unhealthy -- even dangerous -- for everyone.

David Oedel teaches law at Mercer University.

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