The pending farm bill provides no parity for the poor. Faced with the need to cut the federal deficit and deal with falling farm income, Congress is pursuing the easiest and least defensible solution. It's asking American consumers to pay more for food, and the burden will fall disproportionately on the poor and hungry. In 1981 and 1982, Congress cut over $3 billion from food assistance programs. Now it is voting to raise supermarket prices for milk, cheese, meat and bread.
For almost 50 years the federal government has attempted to increase farm income through a combination of programs that limit production and drive food prices up or that make direct payments to farmers when farm prices fall below a certain level. Direct payments tend to have less impact on retail food prices, but they can cost the taxpayer a lot of money. Therefore, it isn't surprising that, in a time of huge budget deficits, a growing farm crisis and relatively stable food prices, Congress is tempted to adopt a farm program that shifts costs from the citizen as taxpayer to the citizen as consumer.
The House has already succumbed. It approved a dairy diversion program that will raise milk and cheese prices by $10 billion over the next four years and a sugar program that will cost consumers $140 million to $160 million a year. It is about to vote on a program of mandatory produc and wheat that would raise meat and bakery product prices by $15 billion over a four- year period and could raise the consumer price index for food by 1 percent a year.
Production-control advocates argue that food prices have been quite stable over the past few years, that Americans spend less of their disposable income for food than consumers in other developed nations and that the anticipated food-price increases generated by the farm bill are a reasonable trade-off for preserving the family farm.
They aren't all wrong. Food prices went up 4 percent last year, and this year's increase is expected to be about the same. Our food prices are generally lower than those in other countries. I believe urban America has a stake in maintaining a healthy farm economy.
But Congress is wrong, wrong, wrong in trying to shift the costs of saving farms from the taxpayer to the consumer. First, the tax code is still progressive. The supermarket is not. All consumers will pay the same price for a chicken, but low-income consumers may spend up to 40 percent of their income for food.
Second, the president and Congress have ravaged food assistance programs by cutting both eligibility and benefit levels. In early 1980, 29.3 million Americans lived in poverty. Today, there are 4.4 million more poor people, but the number receiv stamps is still 19.5 million. One- fourth of all children under the age of 6 live in poverty, yet child nutrition programs have been cut.
The House farm bill does include some increases over this year's food stamp spending, but it restores only one- sixth of the cuts made since 1981. The Senate Agriculture Committee has approved a bill that actually cuts an additional $900 million from food stamps over the next four years.
Perhaps the ultimate irony in this attempt to reduce federal spending through production controls is that higher food prices drive up the cost of the food assistance programs and add to the deficit. The dairy provisions of the House bill will raise the cost of the food stamp program by $1.5 billion and the school lunch program by $462 million over the next five years -- unless, of course, Congress and the president then decide food assistance costs too much and seek further cuts in the programs.
The WIC program operates with a fixed ceiling. It cannot expand to meet increased food prices and will simply serve fewer women and children. The dairy diversion program will raise the cost of milk by 5 percent in 1986; the WIC food package cost will go up; the program's funding will serve 54,000 fewer women each month.
Given the impact of production controls, people may wonder why Congress would raise food prices after cutting food benefits. There are several explanations. The effect and mechanics of farm programs remain a mystery to most members of Congress; they follow the committee's lead. Many members of the Agriculture Committee are not sympathetic to the food stamp program. They believe food assistance competes with agricultural programs for scarce federal dollars. They see all recipients as welfare queens and bums. Perhaps that is why seven House committee members voted in favor of the production-con- trol amendment and then supported an amendment by Rep. Bill Emerson to reduce food stamp authorizations. The farm lobbies, especially the dairy industry, make big campaign contributions. Poor people do not.
Finally, there is the deficit. If Congress continues the old farm programs, they'll bust the budget. Increased supermarket prices don't show up in the budget. But, if Congress restores the money it cut from food assistance so poor people can buy the more expensive food, then food assistance programs will break the budget.
There is another way to work on the problem. Congress and the president could recognize that saving farms is going to require a great deal of federal money over the next three to five years and agree to provide it. Farmers could agree to a new set of farm programs that are more efficient and effectively targeted than present ones. We have learned to target food assistance benefits to the neediest and to use the benefits to encourage certain types of behavior, such as job searches. Congress should set size and income limits and eligibility requirements for farm programs too.
Congress and the president should also increase food assistance programs to meet the needs of a poverty population swollen by recent recessions and continuing unemployment. That kind of farm bill would probably force a tax increase or further cuts in defense spending, but one or both of those seem inescapable.
Congress and the nation must save the farmers, but we should not solve the problems associated with farm surpluses by forcing the poor to eat less.