Woe to women across America when they learn how much income the farm bill might cost them. Although Congress has yet to approve a replacement for the 2008 farm bill that expired almost nine months ago and was extended through September 30, the House and the Senate have each approved separate versions of the nearly $1 trillion, ten-year farm bill that scale back or eliminate programs that not only help many women farmers stay in business, but also help low-income mothers feed their kids.
The House passed the latest version of the bill on Thursday by a vote of 217 to 210. It cut $39 billion over the next ten years from the food stamp program.
Congress has traditionally used the farm bill to support farmers when crop prices are temporarily low, to encourage them to let land lie fallow to avoid over-supply of certain crops, and to provide subsidized crop insurance against adverse events such as drought, hail, excess rain, insects and disease.
For more than forty years, the farm bill has also funded the nation’s food stamp program, which is formally known as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP). About 80 percent of spending in the farm bill goes toward nutrition-related programs. Crop insurance is the next largest program, accounting for ten percent of total spending.
Farming is a major source of employment for many women. In 2011, more than 300,000 women were principal operators of farms in America.
There are two aspects of the farm bill that are relatively harmful for women. The first includes the reduced funding for conservation programs and the elimination of direct payments for farmers, and the second is the reduction in food stamp benefits.
In terms of farm subsidies, about 23 percent of the farms principally operated by women received government payments that averaged $6,078 in 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. About 36 percent of the farms principally operated by men received payments that averaged $10,607 in 2011.
Women farmers rely on a particular type of government program: The one that pays them to keep their land out of production. Land retirement programs account for 56 percent of government payments received by farms operated by women, compared with 20 percent for farms operated by men (The data are from the 2007 Census of Agriculture and reported in the USDA’s “Characteristics of Women Farm Operators and Their Farms.”)
Most of the farmland enrolled in land retirement programs is part of the USDA’s roughly $2 billion Conservation Reserve Program. The CRP was established in 1985 and is the latest version of a government program that began in the 1930s to encourage farmers to retire their land from productive use. In exchange for removing their environmentally-sensitive land from farming and planting trees and grass instead, farmers and ranchers enter into a 10- to 15-year CRP contract that guarantees a particular income stream.
The latest versions of the farm bill scale back these land retirement programs. The Senate bill cuts funding for the Conservation Reserve Program by $2.7 billion over ten years and reduces the acres to 25 million from the current 32 million by fiscal 2018 (some of the reduced funding is due to the falling demand for the program as it becomes more profitable for farmers to plant crops on their land rather than to plant trees and grass), according to estimates by the Congressional Budget Office. (Part of this funding is offset by increased federal subsidies for crop insurance. Crop insurance payments, however, won’t benefit women who are letting their land lie fallow.)
Many women farmers also benefit from the $4.5 billion annual direct payment program that began in the mid-1990s and pays farmers according to the difference between market prices and those specified in the farm bill. Farmers don’t have to produce anything to receive direct payments, nor do they need to plant any specific crop. Payments are limited to $40,000 a person per crop year.
Based on the 2007 agricultural census, 44.5 percent of women-operated farms and ranches received payments from a government benefit category that includes direct payments and other non-land retirement programs. Both the Senate and House versions of the farm bill save about $40 billion over ten years by repealing the direct payments program.
But he largest part of the farm bill doesn’t relate to farming — it relates to nutrition. Since 1973, the farm bill has provided funding for food stamps and other nutrition-related programs.
Cutting back on the food stamp program will have a sharp impact on low-income households, the majority of which are headed by single women.
In sharp contrast with the typical farmer, those who receive nutrition assistance are relatively poor. For example, the average farm household had $7,274 monthly income in 2011, compared with $744 in average monthly household income for food stamp recipients that year. In addition, poorer households receive a greater share of SNAP benefits than households with more income, while the opposite is true for farm benefits, where the highest-income farms receive the greatest benefits.
People who use food stamps must demonstrate a financial need. A household’s gross income can’t exceed 130 percent of the poverty line, net income can’t be above the poverty line, and gross assets (excluding the home and retirement accounts) can’t be more than $2,000.
In 2011, about 83 percent of the 21.1 million households receiving SNAP benefits lived in poverty. The average monthly SNAP benefit was about $284 per household and $134 per person that year.
SNAP benefits go primarily to women. Non-elderly adult women make up 62 percent of all SNAP recipients (Children actually account for 45 percent of all participants). Households headed by a single mother received an average $398 in monthly SNAP benefits in 2011.
Both the Senate and the House cut funding for food stamps in the farm bill. The Senate has already approved a $4 billion ten-year cut to food stamps. After rejecting a version of the farm bill that cut food stamp funding by $20 billion over ten years, the House approved a version in July that completely dropped nutrition programs from the bill. No Democrats voted in favor of the revised House bill.
Once again, all of the House Democrats voted against the farm bill that passed on Thursday. The House will now begin negotiations with the Senate over a final version of the measure.
From the farm to the table, women have a major stake in the outcome of this bill.