Social Workers and The Farm Bills

Two flawed farm bills are making their way through their respective chambers of Congress.  The bill in the Senate (S. 954) is being shepherded through the process by Senator Debbie Stabenow, a professional social worker, member of the Congressional Social Work Caucus and chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.  The Senate’s five-year $955 billion Agricultural Reform, Food, and Jobs Act of 2013 contains $23 billion in spending cuts, including $4 billion in cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that provides food stamps to millions of low-income individuals and families.  It was voted out of committee by a 15-5 vote.

As a social worker, my initial reaction was how could Senator Stabenow support cuts to food stamps?  But as someone who knows a little bit about the legislative process on the Hill, it didn’t take long to realize that we are fortunate to have a social worker leading the process in the Senate.  To think that a farm bill would pass through this Congress without cuts in food stamps would be delusional.  The House bill—the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2013 (H.R. 1947)—reduces spending by $40 billion, including a $20.5 billion reduction in SNAP.  We need Stabenow’s leadership to minimize the damage.  Her cuts—about one-half of one percent—targets a questionable practice in the program that gives people who don’t have heating bills a small amount of heating assistance to increase their food stamp allocation.

Had she supported a bill with no cuts in SNAP, it would have had little chance of passage in the Senate even if had made it out of committee.  The bill has to be bi-partisan to have a chance of passage in the Senate and she brought along six Republicans with the nine Democrats who voted for the bill in committee.  Two Democrats—Senators Patrick Leahy (VT) and Kirsten Gillibrand (NY)—and three Republicans voted against the bill.  Sen. Gillibrand’s principled amendment to restore food stamps cuts was defeated during the markup.  Had Democrats held to principle on food stamps other much-needed reforms such as ending direct crop subsidies would be stalled.

Every piece of legislation that reaches the President’s desk for signature is flawed because of the many competing forces involved in the process.  There are obvious ideological differences.  Conservatives believe when the government feeds people they lose their motivation to feed themselves.  Progressives believe it is the government’s responsibility to feed hungry Americans.   There are geographical differences, industry desires and wants, and lobbyists by the truckloads representing scores of interested parties.  Give a little here, take a little there.  You’ve probably heard the comparison of making laws to making sausage.  It can be a messy enterprise.

Both bills were voted out of committee with bi-partisan support which means they have a good chance of passage in their respective chambers.  The House version—H.R. 1947—was voted out of the Committee on Agriculture by a vote of 36-10 with 11 Democrats joining the Republican majority in voting for the bill.  Eight Democrats, including Social Work Caucus member Rep. Marcia Fudge (OH-11) who is also chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, voted against the legislation along with two Republicans.

When these two bills are passed in their respective chambers, it will be interesting to see how the differences are resolved in conference.  House Republicans are known for their intractability on issues forced by the uncompromising Tea Party wing.  As bad as the cuts are in the Senate bill, the draconian reductions in SNAP funding in the House bill will be devastating to countless numbers of children and families.  Social workers must be very vocal in our opposition to these proposed cuts.  Social Work Caucus Chair Rep. Barbara Lee (CA-13) has been very vocal in her opposition to the House bill.

These bills are critically important to social workers because SNAP provides food and nutrition assistance to 47.6 million Americans up from 26.5 recipients at the end of 2007.  Significant increases in unemployment due to the Great Recession explain much of the increase in SNAP participation and the many low-wage jobs created in the wake of the recession do not raise households significantly above the poverty line which means they need SNAP benefits.  SNAP provides food for the most vulnerable Americans; 76 percent of households receiving SNAP benefits include children, the elderly or the disabled.  Social workers must advocate against the cuts.  Silence on this issue betrays our commitment to help those in need.

Written by Dr. Charles E. Lewis Jr.
President of The Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy

Twitter: @CharlesELewisJr.

Dr. Charles E. Lewis, Jr. is President of The Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy. He has served as deputy chief of staff and communications director for former Congressman Edolphus “Ed” Towns and was the staff coordinator for the Congressional Social Work Caucus. He was a full-time faculty member at Howard University School of Social Work prior to joining Rep. Towns’ staff and now is an adjunct associate professor. As staff coordinator for the Social Work Caucus, Dr. Lewis helped to plan and to coordinate numerous briefings and events on the Hill and in the 10th Congressional District in Brooklyn, New York.

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