February 5, 2014

THROWDOWN THURSDAY: A Return to Good Government

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Earlier this week, Congress passed the long-awaited farm bill and sent it to President Barack Obama for his signature. The bill authorizes nearly one trillion dollars of spending over the next decade on such programs as crop insurance, subsidies to farmers growing certain crops like rice and soybeans and assistance to dairy farmers. While these programs are key to keeping food prices low and stable, they serve primarily to benefit agricultural interests. However, this agricultural spending is not the most important part of the story.

For decades, farm bills have passed easily in Congress because of an alliance between rural and urban interests. To secure the votes of urban representatives, the funding of agricultural subsidies has long been tied to the funding of food stamps. Therefore, rural districts get the benefits of the agricultural subsidies, and urban districts get the benefits of food stamps. This alliance held until last summer, when the Tea Party representatives stalled negotiations on the new farm bill as they opposed keeping food stamp funding at the same levels. The Tea Party wanted cuts, the Democrats refused and the bill failed to pass.

The farm bill saw new life, however, when, in the wake of the government shutdown in October, Congress finally passed a budget for the following year. This budget cut food stamp funding by five billion dollars, or about $36 per family of four each month. The food stamps were cut and work began again to pass the farm bill.

However, the cuts weren’t over yet. Tea Party Republicans still demanded billions more in cuts, which would have forced millions of Americans out of the system altogether. Eventually, the party leaders reached a compromise to cut “only” $8.55 billion more from the program over the next decade. And immediately, the spin began, with the Republicans blasting wasteful government spending and the Democrats gloating that they beat back the most egregious of the far right’s demands.

The cuts to food stamps in the farm bill amount to another $90 reduction in benefits per family per month. While Democrats managed to prevent anyone from losing benefits entirely, the harm inflicted on poor families is significant. To make up the lost $126, a family must work over 17 more hours per month at minimum wage. This puts families in the impossible position of deciding how to spend their limited funds. And the government is not making it any easier.

When you delve into the statistics, the picture gets even starker. In the past five years, 47 million Americans have used food stamps to ensure that their families had enough to eat. Over 75 percent of all households receiving food stamps include a child, elderly person or disabled person. About 15 percent of Americans are food insecure. Nearly one in four American children live in poverty. And Congress just made it harder for their parents to buy food.

Republicans say that the cuts are necessary to reduce the deficit and to ensure that the next generation does not suffer from overwhelming debt. But, the next generation is already suffering, and it’s not because of the deficit. It’s because Republicans have created an image of government as a wasteful mess that can do nothing but screw up. They’ve turned the government into a demon that can only be defeated through cutting taxes and spending.

Government used to be a force for good. Social Security has lifted millions of elderly Americans out of poverty. Civil rights legislation ended segregation laws and secured the rights of all Americans to vote for their representatives. Presidents have led us through great hardships and inspired us to climb to great heights. And there’s no reason that government can’t do all these things again.

As Americans, we must realize that we have a collective responsibility to care for the most vulnerable among us. Elderly and disabled Americans benefit from far-reaching social programs such as Social Security, but no comparable program exists to protect children. Nearly 17 million American children live in poverty, and we can do something about it. We can stand up and say that these Americans, these children, deserve our support. We can say that no child should go hungry at night. We can say this and we must say this because some things transcend any debate over the proper role of government. Some things have to force us to come together and say that the status quo will not suffice. If anything can do that, it is the common goal of reducing child poverty.

Congress just ensured that farmers will be able to grow and sell their crops. Now we just have to ensure that that food reaches the plates of America’s children.