Others’ opinion: Farm bill should help both the poor and farmers

Published 8:09 am Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Farmers and low-income Minnesotans have a common bond — their fates rest, in part, on a federal farm bill that delivers nutritional aid to the needy and critical supports for farmers and is caught in a political stalemate that could hurt both.

In yet another attempt to hack away at the shrinking safety net for those at the lowest income levels, House Republicans would make it harder to get on SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that is the country’s largest form of food aid. More than 430,000 Minnesotans used SNAP last year, including many families with school-age children, senior citizens and the disabled, along with low-income single adults.

The benefits don’t stretch very far at retail grocery stores, and many recipients wind up filling in with monthly trips to local food shelves. Nevertheless, the House GOP has decided the program is too generous. They want stiffer work requirements that would include most adults from 18 to 59, with few exceptions. That may sound reasonable to some, but the reality is many SNAP recipients already work. They just don’t make enough to feed themselves and their families.

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Some SNAP recipients can’t get enough hours at existing jobs. They lack reliable cars or public transit. Child care can be hard to find and prohibitively expensive. Older and disabled recipients can struggle with physical or mental conditions that make even part-time work a challenge. The average income of a SNAP family nationally is less than $9,000.

If House Republicans want to offer a “springboard out of poverty,” as House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway so sunnily put it, they should help with the struggles recipients face, not penalize them for poverty or poor health. Lifting barriers is productive and compassionate. Kicking people off food assistance will only propel them into deeper poverty and greater hunger.

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Rob Zeaske, CEO of Second Harvest Heartland in St. Paul, is already fretting about the additional need that would result from the House plan. Walking through the facility’s massive Maplewood warehouse recently, he was surrounded by boxes of fresh tomatoes; towering stacks of shiny, unlabeled vegetable cans; walk-in coolers bursting with milk, eggs and cheese; freezers filled with beef. Despite the seeming bounty, Zeaske knows it will already fall short.

In 2008, Zeaske said, Second Harvest distributed 37 million pounds of food. This year, the figure will be closer to 100 million. SNAP recipients, he said, come in daily, looking to stretch their food supplies. Zeaske wishes more lawmakers knew how hard most SNAP recipients work. “They usually have one, sometimes two jobs,” he said. “Those who don’t work, usually can’t.” He’d also like to bust another favorite myth: That they’re all out there buying junk food and luxury items. “Our surveys have showed nutrition is the number one concern,” he said. “The biggest demand is for fresh food — meat, milk, fruit, vegetables.”

Minnesota U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, the ranking Democrat on the Agriculture Committee, said GOP intransigence has split the committee like never before and may imperil final passage of the bill, which expires in September. Republican leaders in the more narrowly divided Senate are mindful of the need for Democratic votes and have already rejected the House work requirements. “We used to be able to get stuff done,” Peterson said, “but this is crazy. We had 89 people testify at 23 hearings. None of them recommended this.” The plan, he notes, also would impose a huge burden on state and local governments, which would be responsible for tracking employment status for 42 million recipients nationwide. “I’m all for people working, but in my district the biggest complaint I hear is about the lack of workers. There aren’t enough bodies to fill jobs.”

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Meanwhile, farmers already buffeted by President Donald Trump’s decision to blow up trade — turning longtime allies and trading partners against the U.S. and triggering retaliatory tariffs from China — now add to their worries the fate of a five-year farm bill that includes crop subsidies, price supports for sugar and other programs crucial to their stability.

Chinese tariffs on pork, soybeans and other products are already taking a toll on Minnesota farmers. Additionally, dairy prices are plummeting in part because China has cut back on purchase of American milk products, while Russia has stopped importing U.S. milk products altogether. “My farmers are looking at a late spring, frost on the ground, a president jeopardizing our market with these crazy tariffs and going after renewable fuel standards,” Peterson said. “Now this. It’s crazy.”

There are good elements in the 2018 bill. The proposed increase in workforce training could be invaluable for helping individuals increase their job skills. The provisions that would help young farmers get started with training and land access programs are desperately needed as farmers age out of such a strenuous occupation.

But that is not enough to force harsh changes that would hurt so many. SNAP provides a floor for millions of Americans a year who already live on the edge of hunger. Farmers and grocers benefit as well. Every dollar of SNAP benefits generates $1.80 of economic activity. We urge Republicans to keep the job training and bring more innovations to get people better jobs, but to drop punitive measures that would only take from those who already have too little.

Star Tribune

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