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Editorial: Farm Bill passage lauded; inequitable loophole exposed

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Posted on December 12, 2018 |
By Angelo Lynn



Vermont’s congressional delegation lined up in support of a compromise $867 billion Farm Bill passed overwhelmingly by the U.S. House and Senate earlier this week. The House approved the bill 386-47; the Senate approved it 87-13. The strong bipartisan support, analysts said, was spurred in part by pressure from farmers battered by President Trump’s trade war with China.

The bill allocates billions of dollars in subsidies to American farmers over the next decade, legalizes hemp, bolsters farmers markets and rejects stricter limits on food stamps pushed by House Republicans. President Trump is expected to sign the bill into law. The farm bill is essentially a five-year extension of federal farm programs and while Republicans tried to restrict nutrition programs to the poor, those measures were ultimately rejected, allowing those important nutritional programs to continue serving Americans who might otherwise not have enough to eat. 

Along those lines, and while agreeing with the bipartisan support of the larger bill, the Washington Post had this blistering critique about that one aspect of the legislation: 

“The vast majority of that money (roughly 80 percent of the $867 billion), goes to the government’s main nutritional aid program for the poor, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. This brings us to the relatively good news about the House-Senate deal: It omits a provision in the House bill that would have tightened eligibility for SNAP by requiring childless adult recipients between the ages of 49 and 59, as well as adults with children 6 or older, to work or participate in job-training programs for 20 hours per week. 

“Ostensibly a measure to encourage ‘independence’ among this population, the proposal would actually have saved the federal government only about $1.5 billion over the next 10 years, while ballooning state bureaucracies needed to enforce the work requirement. Meanwhile, up to 1.2 million previously eligible people would have would up without benefits — in other words — hungrier.

“In one important respect, however, the farm bill appears likely to loosen a work requirement. We refer now to the rest of the measure, which provides a ‘safety net‘ — subsidies — for agricultural commodity producers. Current law limits the amount any one farmer can receive from the two largest crop-subsidy programs to $125,000 per year ($250,000 for married couples.) However, there is a large loophole for ‘family farms’ that permits not only a couple but also their children (and their spouses) to get paid as long as they are ‘actively engaged’ in the management of the business. And this particular requirement can be met through little more than occasional participation in farm-related paper pushing. 

“Even that is too stringent for some owners of large farms, who have pushed for an expanded definition of a ‘family farm’ that will enable more distant relations — such as nieces, nephews and cousins — to receive up to $125,000 each, as long as they do something that can be characterized as management. The chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Rep. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, says this is a way to keep new generations of younger people involved in farming, and his concern has carried the day, because this provision is reportedly included in the final bill.

“…For the most part, this farm bill simply maintains the existing set of subsidy programs, bloated and wasteful as they often are. Still, the extension of taxpayer largesse to extended families would be a step backward in the long-term fight for incremental rationalization of agriculture policy. It is also quite a comment on Republican legislative priorities: The party’s lawmakers have fought simultaneously to make the poor work more for taxpayer-funded help they really need, while allowing some farmers’ relatives to work hardly at all to get taxpayer-funded help they don’t need.”

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