Farm bill hurts hungry Americans

A girl joins her dad and others in June in Los Angeles protesting the farm bill that just passed.

Story highlights

  • John Stoehr: If GOP wants "compassionate conservatism," food stamp cuts aren't the way
  • Stoehr: Cuts might be justified if agribusiness didn't get $90 billion over 10 years
  • He says the GOP is not opposed to redistribution of wealth if it gets distributed to the wealthy

House Republicans pushed through a trillion-dollar farm bill -- approved by the Senate Tuesday -- that will cut food stamps by $8 billion over the next decade and reduce food allotments for more than 850,000 households by around $90 a month.

The measure passed despite opposition from Tea Party Republicans who were seeking even more savage cuts. If the Republican Party hopes to revive the Bush-era idea of "compassionate conservatism," this isn't the way to do it.

The bill was the culmination of a three-year battle over food stamps, also called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. House Democrats who supported the measure said they compromised. This version, they said, was better than previous ones; Tea Party Republicans had wanted a 5% cut, not 1%. The White House has signaled that President Obama will sign the bill.

John Stoehr

He shouldn't, but this is a pragmatic president. So he probably will.

That the legislation slashes aid to hungry children might be justifiable if it didn't also hand out $90 billion over 10 years -- $7 billion more than before -- in subsidized crop insurance to farmers, which virtually guarantees revenue. The agribusiness lobby, which includes large farming concerns as well as publicly traded corporations like Monsanto and Kroger, spent $111 million pressing lawmakers, according to Bloomberg. That's more than the defense and union lobbies combined. Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat who voted against the measure, called it "nothing more than reverse Robin Hood legislation that steals food from the poor in favor of crop subsidies for the rich."

If not for the hungry children, there might be a bright side. It's not every day that the real constituency of establishment Republicans is revealed so clearly.

Typically, the GOP's representation of big business is shrouded by rhetorical expressions of concern for workaday Americans. For instance, after President Obama announced he would use his executive authority to raise the base wage of workers employed by companies with federal contracts, House Speaker John Boehner accused Obama of hurting workers by hurting their employers.

"We know from increases in the minimum wage in the past that hundreds of thousands of low-income Americans have lost their jobs, and so the very people the President purports to help are the ones who are going to get hurt by this," Boehner told reporters last week on Capitol Hill.

While it may sound credible to argue that paying workers $3 and some change more per hour actually hurts them in the long run (because businesses hiring them shed workers to avoid paying more), it's completely incredible to say feeding hungry Americans more hurts them.

'This is an investment in rural America'
'This is an investment in rural America'


    'This is an investment in rural America'


'This is an investment in rural America' 02:09
Food stamp recipients see cuts
Food stamp recipients see cuts


    Food stamp recipients see cuts


Food stamp recipients see cuts 02:27

The most extreme wing of the Republican Party, including those who opposed the farm bill, claims that it spends money the government doesn't have. If so, such moments of scarcity demand tough and moral decisions be made according to priorities. With this bill, the Republicans have said loudly that corporations with billions in revenue are more important than children.

The Republicans' real constituency isn't the only thing exposed. So is their opposition to "redistribution." That's movement conservatism's core complaint with the welfare state: They say government takes money from hard-working Americans, who play by the rules and strive to succeed, and gives it to the undeserving poor. Another variation comes from talk-radio show host Rush Limbaugh: "Redistribution is theft," he said last month. "It is a powerful government taking from people they deem to have too much, or more than they need, and then just giving it to people they deem worthy of receiving it."

But as this farm bill reveals, Republicans are not opposed to redistribution at all. Quite the contrary. The question isn't whether the government should redistribute. The question is who should get the distributions.

Republicans have argued for years that help should only be given to those who help themselves.

During a fundraising event, Lee Bright, a Republican state senator of South Carolina who is challenging U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, said: "Able-bodied people, if they don't work, they shouldn't eat."

That argument is exposed as fundamentally bankrupt in light of the fact, as journalist Sasha Abramsky reported last year, that "22% of children in America live in poverty -- a number far higher than that in any other peer nation. More than 47 million Americans avoid hunger only because of the existence of the federal food stamp program."

But of course this is about hungry children. Lots of them. Perhaps worst of all is the moral climate created and maintained by Limbaugh & Co. in which depriving children of food is permissible.

Case in point: In Utah recently, around 40 students in one of Salt Lake City's elementary schools watched as food-service workers seized their lunches and threw them into the trash. The reason? Unpaid meal accounts. Said one outraged mother: "These are young children that shouldn't be punished."

Amen to that.

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