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While farm bill helps WNY farmers, it punishes food stamp recipients

The farm bill that appears on its way to passage is a bipartisan compromise – meaning that no one is completely happy with it.

Local farmers will benefit from a new insurance program for growers of “specialty crops,” such as the apples from Niagara County’s orchards, while protecting upstate dairy farmers from the worst of the deep cuts in farm support programs.

However, the bill punishes the poor who rely on food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Benefits would be reduced for 300,000 New York households, according to the governor’s office, with about 12,000 families in Erie and Niagara counties affected. The cut would be about $90 a month, according to the Congressional Budget Office, real money for struggling families trying to put together a meal plan.

The House approved the five-year farm bill Wednesday; the Senate should follow suit next week, and President Obama has said he will sign it. While the bill cuts funding for SNAP by about $8.6 billion, that at least is better than the $40 billion reduction over 10 years House Republicans once demanded. But the uneven manner in which the cuts are distributed is troubling.

For one, cold-weather states such as New York are at a disadvantage because the cuts focus on the derisively termed “heat and eat” loophole, which this state and other use to increase food stamp payments for some renters. Low-income apartment dwellers whose utility costs are included in their rent are given a minimal payment from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. That action then qualifies them for higher food stamp payments.

It’s a hit to the program that will hurt individuals, families and the economy. Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, said, “This would basically take $13 million in demand out of the Buffalo Niagara economy every year.”

Rep. Chis Collins, R-Clarence had a different viewpoint, believing the loophole needed to be closed: “No one who deserves food stamps is getting any cuts.”

There are always people out there abusing safety net programs such as unemployment insurance and food stamps, and they should be caught and prosecuted. However, that number is small compared to those who need the help. For those dependent on government assistance, this farm bill represents more bad news and a tougher daily struggle.

There is an upside for local farmers, as Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., pointed out. The farm bill eliminates direct farm payments and saves $23 billion overall, but it also extends the federal crop insurance program to fruits and vegetables, staple crops on Western New York farms. Moreover, the bill includes a Schumer provision to increase production of maple syrup and programs to promote U.S. crops overseas and at domestic farmers’ markets.

Both Schumer and Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, touted the benefits to farmers, who can now make long-term plans and investments. That’s true, but what about the poor? Schumer says he opposed the food stamp cuts and, “You can’t always get what you want.” He vowed to fight to undo the cuts later.

The bill is helpful in many areas and, for that, we’re grateful. It’s just unfortunate that those least able to afford it will be paying a high price.