This month, the Senate could vote on the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (S. 3042), more commonly known as the “farm bill.” Despite repeated calls to enact work requirements for food stamp recipients and to reform runaway farm subsidies, the Senate Agriculture Committee approved a farm bill that maintains dysfunctional and distortive status quo welfare and agricultural policies.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have long sought reforms to both the welfare and agricultural sides of the farm bill, including work requirements for food stamps and an overall decrease in government subsidies, price controls, and regulation. Unfortunately, the Senate bill achieves none of these goals.
The bill does nothing to strengthen work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs), a provision that was at least attempted by the House committee in its approved version of the farm bill. Robert Rector, Senior Research Fellow in Domestic Policy at The Heritage Foundation, and Rachel Sheffield, explain in their paper Setting Priorities for Welfare Reform:
The food stamp program is the second largest means-tested welfare program. In 2014, government spent $83.1 billion on the program. In recent years, the most rapidly growing group of food stamp recipients has been able-bodied adults without dependents. ABAWDs are adults between the ages of 18 and 49 who are not disabled and who have no children to support. In 2014, nearly five million ABAWDs received food stamps each month; few are employed.
Work requirements proposed in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Reform Act (H.R. 2996) would help reduce poverty and government dependency, increase self-sufficiency, and restore families by requiring ABAWDs to work as a condition of receiving government benefits—a policy supported by an overwhelming 90 percent of Americans. This critical reform is ripe for inclusion in the farm bill.
Daren Bakst, Senior Research Fellow in Agricultural Policy at The Heritage Foundation, examines agricultural subsidies and risk in his report Farms and Free Enterprise: A Blueprint for Agricultural Policy. Bakst notes that agricultural commodity programs are a legacy of the government’s attempt to raise farm income during the Great Depression—programs that continue today despite the fact that farm household income greatly exceeds that of non-farm households.
It is often suggested by congressional lawmakers that “farm” subsidies merely provide a “safety net” for rural farmers who toil away modestly in America’s heartland. Bakst shows this is a distortion of reality:
In 2016, small family farms accounted for 89.9 percent of all farms, yet received 27 percent of commodity payments and 17 percent of crop-insurance indemnities. In contrast, commercial farms, which include the largest family farms, accounted for just 10.1 percent of all farms, yet received 73 percent of commodity payments and 83 percent of crop-insurance indemnities.
Providing a safety net for farmers is understandable, but current agricultural policy severely distorts the agricultural marketplace and transfers benefits to the wealthiest individual farmers.
The Trump administration’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposed reasonable subsidy reforms that were rejected by both agriculture committees. Those reforms included reducing premium subsidies for crop insurance policies; limiting commodity, conservation, and crop insurance subsidies to producers that have an Adjusted Gross Income of $500,000 or less; tightening eligibility requirements for farm subsidy payments; and lowering the profit margin at which taxpayer-backed insurance policies can be paid out to producers. President Trump’s proposals would save taxpayers nearly $30 billion over the next ten years.
S. 3042 also fails to provide regulatory relief to farmers by repealing and properly redefining “Waters of the United States” under the Clean Water Act. Under the Obama administration, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) interpreted the definition of “navigable waters” in such an extreme way that even a man-made ditch could be regulated. At the very least, Congress should include the repeal of WOTUS in the farm bill so farmers can get back to doing what they do best, free from this draconian Obama-era regulation.
Reauthorization of the farm bill occurs once every five years or so. Congress should not waste this opportunity to reform welfare and rein in out-of-control farm subsidies, while giving farmers the regulatory relief they need.
Heritage Foundation: A Conservative Farm Bill Must Include Major Subsidy and Regulatory Reforms
Heritage Foundation: What You Should Know About Who Receives Farm Subsidies
Heritage Foundation: Significant—and Necessary—Farm Subsidy Reforms for the Next Farm Bill
Heritage Foundation: Five Steps Congress Can Take to Encourage Work in the Food Stamps Program
Heritage Foundation: Food Stamp Reform Bill Requires Work for Only 20 Percent of Work-Capable Adults
Heritage Foundation: Dispelling Claims by Farm Subsidy Proponents
Heritage Action: Amendments to Food Stamp and Farm Bill (H.R. 2)