WASHINGTON – Buffalo and other poorer cities will soon experience the sharpest cuts ever in the food stamp program if House Republicans get their way – and upstate food producers and advocates for the poor are equally upset about it.
They they came to Capitol Hill on Tuesday, voicing their concerns about the House food stamp bill while showing off the state’s agricultural wonders at Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand’s annual New York Farm Day.
“Our farmers are very worried about it,” fearing that the food stamp issue will delay completion of a federal farm bill that they all depend on, said Jodi C. Smith, dairy market and policy analyst for Upstate Niagara Cooperative Inc. of Batavia.
Getting a new bill setting federal farm policy for the next five years is hugely important to growing Greek yogurt producers like the Upstate Niagara Cooperative, as well as to those who advocate for the 187,399 residents of Erie and Niagara counties who receive food stamps.
More than 6,600 of those people could lose their federal food aid under a bill that’s expected to go to the floor of the House for a vote later this week. But it’s the perilous politics of that proposal that worries farm interests more than the remote possibility that it could ever make its way into law.
Leaders in the state’s burgeoning agribusiness sector fear that the Republican-led House and Democratic-controlled Senate are so far apart on the food stamp issue that it will be difficult if not impossible for them to come to an agreement.
And without a deal on food stamps – a program that’s been tied to the federal farm bill for more than four decades – the current farm bill, and its support for the nation’s dairy farmers and crop growers, will expire Sept. 30.
Farmers went through a similar situation in Congress a year ago before lawmakers simply extended the old farm bill and the food stamp program for another year, and lawmakers and agriculture interests concede that could happen again.
But year-by-year extensions are not good enough for upstate dairy farmers and the cooperatives and companies that use their products.
As fast as the yogurt industry is growing in upstate New York, it would be growing even faster if Congress gave farmers the certainty that only a five-year farm policy bill could provide, Smith said.
“If you have these one-year extensions, it’s hard to make long-term investment decisions,” she said.
House Republicans insist, though, that the food stamp program has grown too big and that cutting it is an important part of bringing the nation’s budget closer to balance. They propose $39 billion in cuts over 10 years as well as reforms that would require able-bodied single food stamp recipients to either look for work or get job training.
“An open-ended benefit with no requirement for work or job training fails to give recipients the tools they need to become self-sufficient and comes at the expense of hardworking taxpayers who are paying higher taxes to support a program that has more than doubled since 2008,” said Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning.
Senate Democrats – who have passed a farm bill that cuts food stamps by a mere $4 billion over a decade – couldn’t disagree more.
“It’s a huge disservice to hungry families all across America and a disservice to our farmers,” Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said of the House proposal. “I hope Democrats stand strong against such outrageous cuts.”
Advocates for the poor are equally worried. They said the House GOP proposal largely targets a part of the food stamp program that often serves the elderly and the disabled, who would have to resort to seeking food from already overburdened charities if the cuts actually became law.
“The food pantries are already struggling, and that’s where people are going to go,” said Kelly Ann Kowalski, director of Food for All, a Buffalo nonprofit that aims to address hunger in the community, in part by helping people sign up for food stamps.
As for the work requirement in the House bill, other than the seniors and the disabled, “there are few people who call us who aren’t working,” Kowalski said.
Republicans, however, see things very differently.
Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, noted that the bill’s food stamp cuts are not aimed at the poorest of the poor. Instead, they’re aimed at parts of the food stamp program that allow people to qualify without an asset or income test.
“People are gaming the system,” he said. “People are saying that deserving, eligible people are going to get their food stamps cut. There’s no truth to that.”
Collins also noted that while the old farm bill is set to expire Sept. 30, the real deadline facing Congress is Dec. 31. That’s because farm programs are funded on a seasonal basis, meaning they’re already set for the rest of this year. In addition, he noted that food stamps are funded “on autopilot” and will continue even if the Sept. 30 deadline is breached.
What’s more, Collins said it’s important that the House pass the food stamp bill – which would be combined with a farm bill that it passed separately earlier in the summer – so that the House and Senate can move toward final negotiations on a new five-year farm bill.