Oct 31, 2013 - By The Miami HeraldMembers of the U.S. House and Senate are meeting this week to reconcile disparate farm bills. The prospects are not pretty. Though the bills are similar in most respects, food stamps have become the focal point of a huge political dogfight that could sink the entire bill.
Formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, food stamps have been part of the farm bill for decades. Poor and low-income families across America rely on food stamp benefits to avoid going hungry.
Nonetheless, the House bill would cut $4 billion per year from the program and slice 10 percent of the beneficiaries out of the picture by tightening eligibility rules.
To make matters worse, funding from the 2009 federal stimulus package that temporarily boosted stamps has ended. Consequently, a family of four with the maximum benefit of $668 or so, will get some $36 less per month in food stamps. Further cuts will only hurt vulnerable families and increase hunger in many households. This would lead to worse health and educational outcomes, as well as higher health costs.
U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla., who was named to the conference committee that will reconcile House and Senate versions of the bills, is arguably the most determined advocate of reforming food stamps. He would impose requirements that, in effect, would pare the number of beneficiaries.
Thanks to him, the House bill would cut $39 billion from the food stamp program over 10 years and produce devastating consequences for the affected families -- some of them unintended.
By reducing access to food stamps, for example, many families would be forced to eat cheaper, less nutritious and more fattening foods, contributing to the nation's obesity epidemic.
The $80 billion-a-year food stamp program is part of the $500 billion, multi-year farm bill that sets policy for farm subsidies, food stamps, and other rural projects.
It's a vital program, but unless lawmakers reach agreement by year's end, dairy supports could expire, which would send the price of milk soaring for all consumers.
The sensible choice is the Senate approach, which would cut only about a tenth of the amount proposed by the House.
It would be shameful for Congress to yank food stamps from vulnerable families during this weak economy. The food stamp program may need reform, but draconian cuts in eligibility would do more harm than good.
For a Congress woefully short on legislative accomplishments, this bill is a test of competence. Lawmakers, it's past time to reach a compromise and actually pass a major piece of legislation.