Legislators, locals worry as food stamp debate entangles Congress

News-DemocratSeptember 17, 2013 

The clock is ticking on the federal farm bill, and metro-east farmers like Chris Otten worry that the current bill's Sept. 30 expiration date will come and go with no long-term replacement for it.

"When there's no plan in place, who knows where we can go?" said Otten, who farms corn, soybeans and wheat near St. Libory.

The big concern for Otten and other farmers is the fate of crop insurance. Last year, federally subsidized crop insurance was a lifesaver because of the drought that wiped out nearly 80 percent of the corn crop in some Illinois counties.

"Last year if there had been no crop insurance whatsoever, I don't know what we would've done," he said.

In a few days, the GOP-led U.S. House is expected to vote on the latest version of the farm bill.

The big sticking point, especially with the Democrat-controlled U.S. Senate, is the size of proposed cuts to the federal food stamps program, known officially as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or S.N.A.P.

The House version is a food stamps only bill that cuts $40 billion over 10 years. In contrast, the Senate version cuts only $4 billion from S.N.A.P.

U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart, D-Belleville, said he would vote against a House bill containing $40 billion in cuts.

Enyart, who sits on the House Agriculture Committee, expressed pessimism that a conference committee from the Senate and House could work out a compromise acceptable to majorities in both chambers.

"It's a long walk from $4 billion to $40 billion," he said. "I would hope that the conference committee will be able to reach an agreement. But I can't hold out any hope for it at this point."

But U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, the most senior metro-east U.S. House members, believes Congress will pass a long-term farm bill later this fall -- despite sharp partisan disagreement over the size of cuts to the nation's nearly $80 billion-per-year food stamp program.

"I think we'll get it," Shimkus said. "But I think we might have to extend the current bill for a month or two while the conference works out the differences."

Shimkus said he's optimistic that a deal will be struck.

"There's no appetite in Washington to have another year extension," he said. "My farmers need to have some ability to handle risk, which means a (crop) insurance program. And the authorization bill allows there to be an ag insurance program."

U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, who also sits on the ag committee, also expressed optimism that a comprehensive farm bill will get passed.

Senate Democrats, however, form a major barrier, said Davis, whose district includes parts of Madison County.

"Because they really have no incentive to marry it up again because then they wouldn't have to take any reforms and not save taxpayers any dollars," he said.

Davis' assessment explains a major reason behind the fact the farm bill has been marooned in the U.S. House since before the start of the summer. Basic philosophical differences between liberals and conservatives explain the impasse -- differences that touch on both the purpose of S.N.A.P., as well as alarm over the fact that S.N.A.P. has soared in cost, from $20.6 billion in 2002 to $78.4 billion for 2013.

Democrats contend the sharp rise in food stamp costs stems from high unemployment caused by the recession that began in 2008, as well as the loss of middle-class jobs, which have been replaced by part-time and low-wage jobs in the service industry.

In any event, S.N.A.P. enrollment nationwide surged by 70 percent since 2008 to almost 48 million people as of December 2012, or 15 percent of the American population. This compares to a decade before, when just 8 percent of Americans were on food stamps.

The number of residents of St. Clair County, which covers some of the state's poorest ZIP codes, depending on S.N.A.P. surged 52 percent -- from 33,403 in 2003, to nearly 51,000 in 2013, for a food stamp participation rate of nearly 19 percent, Illinois Department of Human Services figures show.

In Madison County, the S.N.A.P. participation has grown by nearly 50 percent during the last decade -- from 21,376 in 2003 to 42,372 in 2013, for a county participation rate of nearly 16 percent, state figures show.

But many House Republicans, especially the most conservative, believe the nation's food stamp program is riddled with waste and fraud, and that too many recipients are able-bodied adults who refuse to look for work.

As a result, the GOP-backed bill the House is expected to vote on later this week contains tough new provisions that would remove up to 4 million recipients from S.N.A.P. rolls by requiring them to look for jobs and to take drug tests.

"It might actually make able-bodied people try to find a job," Shimkus said of the GOP measure. "We deny benefits to drug addicts. We permanently deny benefits to violent criminals. And we're going to cut the advertising of S.N.A.P. benefits not only in the United States but overseas."

Charities that promote food aid have pushed back vigorously against the proposed Republican cuts in S.N.A.P.

Kevin Hagan, the CEO of Feed the Children, said in a statement that the House reform bill "will neither shorten food lines nor create decent jobs. Instead, the $40 billion in cuts will hamstring S.N.A.P.'s ability to provide for working poor and hungry."

What's more, because of new eligibility rules, the GOP proposal "will result in 15 billion lost meals for low income families and take free school meals from 210,000 children ... The current proposal is not a reform to S.N.A.P.; it will only make drastic cuts to the program."

Shimkus said one of the most important S.N.A.P. reforms is the requirement that able-bodied recipients look for a job. That reform alone would save taxpayers $20 billion, he said.

In his travels across the 15th U.S. House District, which covers large swaths of southwestern Illinois, Shimkus has learned that "even in those counties that have unemployment you would be shocked at how difficult it is for those employers to get employees to come to work," he said. "And I think this is part of the problem."

Contact reporter Mike Fitzgerald at mfitzgerald@bnd.com or 618-239-2533.

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