Adding to Congress’s already lengthy to-do list, the federal government’s primary tool for agricultural and food policy, known as the farm bill, will need congressional reauthorization this year. Originally designed to keep crop prices fair for consumers and farmers during the Great Depression, the bill is a piece of legislation with broad-reaching effects, especially for Arkansans.
The farm bill is a recurring omnibus bill Congress needs to re-approve about every five years. It now includes 12 different titles that cover everything from rural development to nutrition. The nutrition title, which covers the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, is the bill’s largest component, with about 80 percent of total spending going to fund the program.
SNAP, commonly known as food stamps, gives an average of 40 million Americans assistance in buying food every month. But often that assistance isn’t enough, according to Ellen Vollinger with the Food Research and Advocacy Center, or FRAC, which is based in Washington, D.C. She spoke at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service last Thursday.
“Per person, the benefits are relatively meager. The average benefit is about $4 per person a day, so we’re not talking about a program that has enormous reserves that, if you cut all of a sudden, then people are not going to have a problem,” Vollinger said.
Vollinger directs FRAC’s advocacy for SNAP, and says with the farm bill set to expire this year, the future of supplemental nutrition is uncertain. Lawmakers were already seeking to cut SNAP funding by as much as $20 billion in the last farm bill in 2014. Now Vollinger says Congress will likely turn its attention to entitlement programs such as SNAP to help pay for a projected $1.4 trillion deficit increase created by the GOP tax plan.
“There’s a lot of talk, particularly out of Speaker [Paul] Ryan, about wanting to reform entitlement programs. Not only SNAP, but SNAP is a very large program, there’s a lot of money in SNAP, it’s not the first time that conservatives have tried to block grant it or change the structure,” Vollinger said.
Vollinger says SNAP’s structure as an entitlement program is essential to its success, with funding for the program fluctuating based on need. She says proposals to change SNAP funding to a fixed block grant would greatly reduce the program’s flexibility, especially in the case of emergency SNAP for natural disasters.
“Disaster SNAP, which is temporary benefits for victims of disasters, was used in Arkansas in recent years. In Faulkner County, for victims there back in 2014, and then for a bunch of your counties in 2011. With a block grant, a fixed block grant amount of money, there wouldn’t have been this wiggle room for the federal government to come in with the aid,” Vollinger said.
Another potential blow to SNAP could come in the form of budget cuts. President Donald Trump’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2018 includes a number of changes to SNAP, like cutting $193 billion in federal funding over ten years, and shifting more of the cost burden of SNAP to both retailers and state governments. Vollinger says these proposals could pose a unique challenge to Arkansas.
“So in Arkansas, if this proposal were to be adopted, and so far it hasn’t been, Arkansas eventually, after it was phased in, would be on the hook to pay 25 percent of the cost of the benefits for Arkansas families,” Vollinger said. “The last I knew, you all have a balanced budget requirement, so I don’t know, maybe you just all want to figure out where that money would come from.”
With SNAP enrollment almost equally distributed between urban and rural areas, Vollinger says Congress has an incentive to see the program succeed. She says members of Arkansas’s congressional delegation are in a prime position to affect change to the program, in particular Rep. Rick Crawford , who sits on the House Committee on Agriculture and the Subcommittee on Nutrition, which has jurisdiction over SNAP.
Crawford has rallied against budget cuts to agriculture programs in the past, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said the Senate will not take up entitlement reform in 2018. With little to no possibility of bipartisan agreement, significant structural changes to SNAP are unlikely for the time being.