Ag Policy Blog

Farm Bill Principles Give Everyone Something to Hang Their Hat On

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue speaking last month at the National Press Club in Washington. USDA released principles to help guide Congress in writing a new farm bill.

Everybody gets to take away a little different interpretation from Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue's farm-bill principles that were released on Wednesday.

Taxpayers for Common Sense is among those weighing in on the farm bill, seeking more "cost-efficiency, transparency, responsiveness and accountability." The group considers the principles offered by USDA as "refreshing" and likes USDA's suggestion of not increasing shallow loss payments.

"We’re encouraged that when it comes to so-called shallow loss programs and subsidized crop insurance, the USDA shares this vision," Taxpayers for Common Sense stated. "Now taxpayers need the USDA to push the agriculture committees to follow their lead and craft a farm bill that reins in out-of-control spending on commodity programs and create a more dynamic, less market distorting crop insurance program."

The American Sugar Alliance had a different take away with a press release headlined "USDA Recommends Maintaining a Strong Farm Safety Net." The American Sugar Alliance keyed in on the other aspect of USDA's farm-program principle that Congress should "provide a farm safety net that helps American farmers weather times of economic stress ..."

The sugar alliance added, "Talk of a strong domestic farm policy is music to sugar farmers’ ears as they deal with Mother Nature’s wrath and a low-price market." Leonard Simmons, a cane farmer from San Benito, Texas, said, "It’s getting harder to make a living in sugar. Production costs keep going up, but sugar prices have barely budged in decades. Hawaii recently stopped growing sugar because of this economic squeeze, and I fear Texas won’t be far behind if U.S. sugar policy is weakened.”

The sugar groups stated they hope lawmakers resist calls to cut sugar farmers out of the farm bill.

As DTN Political Correspondent Jerry Hagstrom reported, the principles did not mention the dairy program or any other commodity specifically, but National Milk Producers Federation President Jim Mulhern said that he is “encouraged” that Perdue’s principles “start with improving the farm safety net. The farm bill’s dairy Margin Protection Program (MPP) has proven to be inadequate in providing help to America’s dairy farmers, and fixing it must be a priority in 2018. The USDA has taken significant steps at NMPF’s request in the past three years to improve the MPP, but more is needed.”

American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall also called the principles “a roadmap for the 2018 farm bill” and said “it is a good one for farmers, ranchers and rural communities. The secretary’s farm bill principles look to the future while securing the present for farmers and ranchers who continue to face a prolonged period of reduced farm income. We are pleased the secretary and his team have highlighted not just the importance of risk management on the farm, but also rural development, research and development, trade, conservation and nutrition."

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During Perdue's visit to State College, Pa., on Wednesday, the USDA secretary also said he wants to see more food-stamp recipients work for that assistance, the Wall Street Journal reported.

“We have to figure out ways to feed the poorest in our society more productively and help them learn to transition into an independent lifestyle,” Perdue told Pennsylvania dairy farmers. https://goo.gl/…

Following up on Perdue's comments, DTN asked for a breakdown of SNAP recipients. In FY 2016, there were 43.27 million people on SNAP, of which 35% were considered able-bodied adults, ages 18-59. That comes out to 15.2 million people, roughly.

Others on SNAP break down this way, 12% are seniors age 60 or over, or about 5.2 million people.

Children, ages 17 and under make up 44% of SNAP recipients, or more than 19 million kids.

Another 9% of SNAP recipients, or about 3.9 million people, are disabled adults.

USDA also reports 57% of those 15.2 million able-bodied adults on SNAP in 2016 were already working or looking for a job, or about 8.6 million people.

So there is a group of basically 6.6 million able-bodied working age adults not employed or looking for a job. This is apparently the block of people Perdue is seeking to transition to an independent lifestyle.

USDA doesn't provide more about status of these 6.6 million people, which equates to roughly 2% of the U.S. population. Are they largely taking care of the 19 million kids on SNAP? Are they in the poorest of poor counties in the country? Do they really meet the definition of "able-bodied?"

Bloomberg, in an article on Perdue's principles, reported Perdue also indicated that some work requirements already reinstated by some states "empirically prove that recipients who could cover their food budgets without government assistance are in the SNAP program."

If USDA is going to empirically focus on who is eligible for government assistance and who isn't, then groups such as Taxpayers for Common Sense and lawmakers such as Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, may make more headway with their proposals to limit commodity payments in the farm bill. Grassley's policy proposals were stripped from the last farm bill in conference talks even though nearly identical language passed both the House and Senate. And he has certainly not forgotten that happened. The senator wrote an op-ed in The Daily Caller on Wednesday about limiting farm-program payments. And Grassley, much like Perdue on SNAP, said farm programs should be preserved to "those who truly need help." Too many people who ar not farmers are collecting farm-program payments. Grassley noted, "Setting sound, enforceable payment limits for subsidies is a straightforward way to close loopholes that allow some farmers to exploit the system." https://goo.gl/…

As the Bloomberg article stated, any major battle ahead over defining who is a worthy SNAP recipient also won't happen without people pointing more fingers farm programs and crop insurance.

"The only ugly issue on the scene is the food fight between the nutrition people and the crop-agriculture people," said Harwood Schaffer, an agricultural economist at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. "If we don’t have to steal from nutrition to make the commodity programs work, we may be able to avoid any major problems." https://goo.gl/…

USDA's farm bill principles can be found at https://goo.gl/…

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN

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