Midterm election results will have far-reaching implications, including for low-income Americans.
Reapproving the Farm Bill in 2023 could depend on the results of Tuesday’s election, said Elaine Waxman, senior fellow at the Income Benefits Policy Center at the Urban Institute in Washington DC, the left-leaning political think tank.
The Farm Bill essentially decides how the government spends money on food – from agricultural production and international trade to food security and helping low-income families. Every five years, the House and Senate review the various budgets and requirements in the bill and eventually re-approve the bill. The current version expires in September 2023.
The largest budget in the Farm Bill is allocated to nutrition programs, specifically the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, aims to help lower-income households afford groceries.
Both the Senate and House of Representatives are too close to call. On Wednesday, Republicans appear to have gained ground in their bid to regain control of the House of Representatives. A divided Congress would lead to more arguments and compromises over how funds in the Farm Bill will be allocated, analysts say.
“As of Wednesday afternoon, the Senate and House of Representatives are too close to call. A divided Congress would lead to more arguments about how funds in the Farm Bill will be allocated. ”
“SNAP helps more than 41 million people — roughly the equivalent of the population of New York, Georgia and Michigan states combined — put food on the table every month,” said Alice Reznickova, interdisciplinary scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit organization Organization based in Cambridge, Mass.
“SNAP serves millions of American families, often adult caretakers with children or seniors, and plays an important role in both urban and rural economies,” she wrote in a blog post this week.
In fiscal year 2023, which began in October, a person with an income 130% or less of the poverty line — that is, $1,920 a month for a family of three — is entitled to an average of $281 a month, up from $250 before .
During the pandemic, Congress increased SNAP benefits and paused work requirements for able-bodied individuals. Previously, the program required most able-bodied people to work at least 20 hours a week, otherwise participants could only get three months out of 36 months of assistance.
Now that the unemployment rate has fallen since the peak of the pandemic — standing at 3.7% in October, compared with a recent peak of 14.7% in April 2020 — there is increasing talk among lawmakers about abandoning these emergency measures, particularly among Republicans.
“Republicans have asked states to administer their own SNAP programs based on unemployment and poverty rates, in addition to the length of time beneficiaries have received such assistance.”
The Republican Study Committee outlined its vision for the Farm Bill in a recent report. “The SNAP Act seeks to limit benefits to three months in any three-year period for able-bodied adults without children who are unwilling to work, seek employment, or enroll in vocational training,” the report said.
“Additionally, for many years, conservatives have pushed for SNAP to be turned into a discretionary block grant to states based on unemployment rates, poverty and duration of assistance,” she added. “Under this model, states would have the flexibility to administer their own programs, subject to several reasonable requirements to ensure program effectiveness and viability.”
But Democratic opponents said SNAP eligibility must address the real-world challenges faced by unemployed and/or underemployed workers.
“Those subject to this rule have extremely low incomes and often face disincentives to work,” said Ty Jones Cox, vice president for food assistance policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), a progressive think tank in Washington, D.C focuses on the impact of federal and state budgetary policies.
Those barriers include criminal justice histories, racial discrimination, and/or medical conditions, while unemployed and underemployed Americans also tend to have less education, she added. Jones Cox spoke before the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Nutrition, Oversight and Departmental Operations in June.
It’s always a contentious debate, but this year the debate between Democrats and Republicans is complicated by climate change and inflation, Waxman added.
The balance of power in Congress
The push to cut the SNAP budget is showing its age. In 2014 and 2018, House Republicans proposed large cuts to both years’ versions. None made it to the final version. Democrats controlled the House of Representatives in 2018, while Republicans controlled the House of Representatives in 2014.
Whether Republicans take over both the House and Senate, or the country leaves a split Congress after the midterm — a possibility at the moment, based on the results so far — Republicans will most likely seek to scale back the scope of supplemental nutrition programs, leading to this include the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants (WIC) and SNAP, analysts say.
If Democrats manage to hold both the Senate and House of Representatives, the Biden administration will have more leverage to remain focused on reducing hunger, underpinning nutrition programs, and supporting climate and conservation programs — as well expanding opportunities for small producers. says the report.
Cuts in the SNAP budget, on the other hand, could affect millions of Americans. More than 41 million people — or nearly 22 million households — received food stamps totaling nearly $96 billion for fiscal year 2022, according to the latest data from the Department of Agriculture.
During the worst days of the pandemic, SNAP enrollments surged: In 2020, approximately 3 million more Americans enrolled in SNAP, increasing the number of people enrolled in the program from 35.7 million to 39.8 million.
“People think if the unemployment rate goes down, SNAP becomes less important,” Waxman said. But the ongoing impact of the pandemic, 40 years of high inflation and rising interest rates have only complicated that simple assumption, she added.
Food inflation has no quick fixes
Inflation in September was 8.2% yoy, according to the latest government data. The increase in food prices was even higher at 11.2%. Everything is becoming more expensive – from the cost of containers and labor to animal feed.
Russia’s war in Ukraine sent energy prices skyrocketing, and essential agricultural supplies were cut off by Western government sanctions in response to the war. In addition, the pandemic disrupted global supply chains and labor costs rose due to labor shortages. Extreme heat and weather over the past year have further disrupted agricultural production.
“The cost of groceries has increased by 13% over the last 12 months, which means that a $100 trip to the supermarket in September 2021 cost $113 in September 2022,” Reznickova pointed out in her blog post. “While $13 may not seem like a lot, it can make a huge impact in a country where 13.5 million households struggled to put food on the table last year.”
“SNAP is not responding to runaway inflation like the ones we’ve seen this year,” she added.
Although inflation is still a top priority for voters, there is very little Congress can do to bring down food prices regardless of the mid-election results, Waxman said. There is no quick fix, she added.
““The Farm Bill, due for re-approval in 2023, is our best chance to address the interconnected root causes of food and nutrition insecurity as it affects every aspect of our food and farming system.””
American households are drawing on their savings to pay their bills and are cutting back on spending. Some families told MarketWatch they couldn’t afford meat and had to resort to cheaper options like beans instead.
Families with children and low-income households have been hit hardest by the rise in food prices. A mother of five children living in Harrisburg, Pa. told MarketWatch that the family has stopped having big dinners because the ingredients are now too expensive.
And one mom who works part-time as a parenting director in Detroit told MarketWatch that for the first time, her SNAP benefits weren’t enough to cover the cost of groceries for her and her son. To make ends meet, she made partial payments to the electricity bill.
The Federal Reserve’s role remains crucial in controlling inflation with its series of rate hikes, and elected officials should be careful not to undermine those efforts, said Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst at Bankrate, the personal finance website.
But putting food on the table remains a priority, he said. “If done right, you would realize that there could be costs, but would be acceptable costs,” Hamrick told MarketWatch, “because ultimately we are talking about a humanitarian cause.”
For some, the solution—if any—remains clear. “The Farm Bill, due for re-approval in 2023, is our best chance to address the interconnected root causes of food and nutrition insecurity as it touches every aspect of our food and farming system,” added Reznickova.
“Reimagined, it can improve access to nutritious food by increasing investment in nutrition and anti-hunger programs,” she said, “while also addressing the root causes of food insecurity by promoting racial equity for farmers and rural workers and promotes fair competition in the food industry.”