Apr 16 2013
By Sid Salter, contributing columnist
In a systematic effort to bolster efforts to "primary" any incumbent Republicans who fail to walk the hard right political agenda of the tea party and similar groups, some members of Congress are trying to separate the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP -- read that as food stamps -- from the 2013 federal farm bill.
The effort by tea party-loyal House Republicans to put food stamps in a separate bill from the farm bill is one that is transparent enough from a political standpoint. The present system treats food stamps as what they legitimately are -- one segment of an overall balance in American agriculture policy between market influences on agricultural economics and programs that address poverty and hunger in this nation.
Culling the food stamp program from the overall farm bill makes it an easier and more vulnerable political target for those who wish to cut federal food stamp spending -- or to eliminate it altogether by pushing the responsibility for dealing with poverty and hunger relief to the states.
Few conservative Republicans in the last half-century have understood the role of food stamps in achieving that balance between markets for domestic production of crops and the need to bolster basic nutrition in the nation's poorest venues better than has Mississippi's Republican senior U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran.
Cochran's career-long role in making coherent national agriculture policy is well known. Representing the poorest state in the union, the cerebral Cochran has run the political gantlet between liberal national groups that portray him as hard-hearted against the poor and national conservative groups who see his moderate support for the food stamp program as evidence that he isn't conservative enough.
More than one in five Mississippians are dependent on food stamps. The feds pay all the food stamps benefit costs, while the state and the feds split the administrative costs -- which in Mississippi aren't cheap at close to $25 million annually.
According to U.S. Department of Agriculture Federal Nutrition Service data for federal fiscal year 2011, the last year for which comprehensive statistics are available, SNAP program monthly participants have steadily increased from 426,116 Mississippians in FY 2007 to an annual average of 622,596 Mississippians. Household utilization of the SNAP program had increased from 178,755 in FY 2007 to 273,029 in FY 2011.
The total SNAP benefits paid in Mississippi increased from $443.8 million in FY 2007 to $921.1 million in FY 2011. Average monthly per household SNAP benefits in Mississippi increased from $206.87 in FY 2007 to $281.14 per month by FY 2011. Average monthly per person SNAP benefits in Mississippi rose from $86.79 in FY 2007 to $123.29 monthly in FY 2011.
During that same year, Mississippi's poverty rate hit 22.8 percent and just over 50 percent of Mississippi had only a high school education or less. Some 26.3 percent of Mississippians lived in households considered by the federal government to be "food insecure" or "very low food secure."
Congress bears responsibility for expanding entitlements beyond their original scope without providing funding to pay for them. That's true in terms of Medicaid, Medicare and food stamps. At its inception in 1965, food stamps helped only about 561,000 Americans nationwide. Now, 47 million Americans are dependent. To single out food stamps cuts without comprehensive entitlement reforms is an exploitation of the weakest and poorest among us by politicians.
Cochran's measured stance in favor of including food stamps as part of the nation's overall agriculture and nutrition policies is one that is both defensible and sensible in a state with both Mississippi's depth of poverty and significant agricultural production.
Mississippi's economy would suffer mightily without the annual $894 million in food stamp spending in this state. Don't think so? Ask a grocer, a farmer or a trucker.