The Washington Post

Rep. Noem, Sen. Stabenow work to bridge differences over spending on food stamps and farmers

Rep. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.) is on the Congressional committee that will work to negotiate a new farm bill Rep. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.) is on the Congressional committee that will work to negotiate a new farm bill

The farm bill conference committee faces some steep hurdles as it tries to reconcile the sharp differences among those who would like to increase support for farmers and ranchers and those who would like to prevent sharp cuts to the federal nutrition assistance program known as food stamps.

On one side, some 47.6 million low-income people will see their food stamp benefits cut starting Friday as the temporary additional spending provided in 2009’s stimulus bill expires. On the other side, farmers rely on the federal government to provide subsidized crop insurance, price support, and disaster relief. None of this is available without a farm bill.

That’s one reason why following the re-opening of the federal government on Oct. 18, President Obama said that getting a new farm bill was one of his three priorities. The farm bill provides support to both groups. Food stamps have been part of the farm bill since the early 1970s.

The 41-member committee holds its first public meeting today when it will begin the process of reconciling the differences between the House and Senate versions of the farm bill. Rep. Frank D. Lucas (R-Okla.) chairs the committee.

The current farm bill expired at the end of September with the two chambers unable to agree on several issues, most importantly on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which is better known as food stamps. The House bill cuts $40 billion from the program over 10 years, while the Senate cuts about $3.9 billion. Total spending in the farm bill reaches almost $100 billion a year, with food stamps accounting for 80 percent of that spending.

The most influential woman in the process may be Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) who chairs the Senate Agricultural Committee. In June, the Senate passed a $955 billion 10-year measure that cuts farm spending by $18 billion. Stabenow is also on the budget conference committee and may be in a position trade revenue picked up in the farm bill for additional spending in the budget deal.

On the Republican side, Rep. Kristi Noem of South Dakota knows how important getting disaster relief is to her state. Ranchers lost tens of thousands of cattle to a blizzard that roared through the state earlier this month, and these ranchers have been unable to obtain federal assistance. Noem, who favored allowing the government to shut down as a way to put a cap on federal spending, believes that the federal government should assist ranchers following this natural disaster.

Although each woman has been outspoken on just one of the issues, each represents both food stamp recipients and farmers and thus must reconcile competing interests in the upcoming farm bill negotiations. As a senator, Stabenow represents her entire state, and, because South Dakota has just one representative, Noem also represents her entire state.

Food stamps are an important source of federal assistance in both states. For Stabenow, about 1.8 million Michiganders received a total of $3 billion in food stamp benefits, or about $1,630 each in 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For Noem, about 103,000 South Dakotans received a total of $166 million in food stamp benefits, or about $1,594 each in 2012.

The farming side tells a slightly different story than the food stamp side. Stabenow represents 56,014 farms that received $119 million in federal government payments, or an average of $5,115 per farm, based on the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s most recent census data for 2007. Farmers and ranchers in Noem’s district are slightly better compensated by the federal government. The 31,169 South Dakota farms received $271 million, or an average $11,817 in government payments in 2007. By comparison, food stamp recipients obtained about $1,200 that year in both Michigan and South Dakota.

As a final point, food stamp recipients, by definition, are low income. A household’s net income can’t exceed the poverty line to be eligible for food stamps, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The poverty line for a family of three is about $19,000.

By contrast, the typical Michigan farmer had about $23,000 in net cash income while a typical South Dakota farmer had about $71,000 in net cash income in 2012.

Joann Weiner teaches economics at George Washington University. She has written for Bloomberg, Politics Daily, and Tax Analysts and worked as an economist at the U.S. Treasury Department. Follow her on Twitter @DCEcon.

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