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Protecting the Top, Hurting the Hungry

On Monday, Senate Republicans voted to block the Buffett Rule. Unfortunately, this week we’ll see a similar turn from common sense and fairness in another area: agriculture.

On Monday, Senate Republicans voted to block the Buffett Rule.  As the President said, “The Buffett Rule is common sense. At a time when we have significant deficits to close and serious investments to make to strengthen our economy, we simply cannot afford to keep spending money on tax cuts that the wealthiest Americans don’t need and didn’t ask for. But it’s also about basic fairness – it’s just plain wrong that millions of middle-class Americans pay a higher share of their income in taxes than some millionaires and billionaires.  America prospers when we’re all in it together and everyone has the opportunity to succeed.”

Unfortunately, this week we’ll see a similar turn from common sense and fairness in another area: agriculture.

The House Agriculture Committee is marking up its fast-track budget reconciliation proposal to achieve $33 billion in savings. 

According to this story, the committee’s majority proposal will not reduce farm subsidies. While everybody recognizes the critical importance of a strong farm safety net, we can protect farmers while contributing to deficit reduction. That’s why folks on both sides of the aisle have proposed that we end taxpayer subsidies to individuals who don’t need them. The committee’s fast-track bill doesn’t touch these subsidies – even for individuals who make more than $1 million a year.

Instead, the committee is looking to find more than $33 billion in cuts from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—formerly known as Food Stamps—which provides support for millions of families struggling to get by. 

Under one of the committee’s proposals, more than 3 million low-income children, seniors, people with disabilities, and other Americans would lose SNAP assistance in 2013. About two-thirds of those disqualified are in working households.  Many families would be disqualified because they have set aside very modest savings, as little as $2000.  In the past, some conservatives have acknowledged that asset tests punish people for doing the right thing. The committee proposal would do just that.Under this proposal, hundreds of thousands of kids would also lose their free school lunches, which are sometimes their only consistent meal each day.

Looking further into the future, beginning in 2016, the House Republican budget resolution proposes to cut over $120 billion from SNAP in the course of block-granting it.  We don’t have details, but unless cash-strapped states come up with new resources, these cuts would need to be absorbed by cutting benefits, cutting eligibility, or both.  If savings were absorbed entirely in benefit cuts, the average participant would lose approximately $400 in SNAP benefits in 2016.  The average household would lose more than $900.  Forty-one million nationwide could face a cut in benefits. 

Like the rest of the House Republican Budget, the Agriculture Committee’s proposal fails to make the investments we need to build a healthy future for our nation and support a strong middle class.  Budgeting ought to be about balance.  Instead of focusing cuts on those who are working hard to make ends meet, we should be asking all Americans to do their part.

To see what the House budget cuts to SNAP would mean in your state, see this chart.  The first column reflects the impact of the one proposal described above, the elimination of so-called categorical eligibility.  The second column shows the number of people who would be eligible for benefits under current rules in 2016—benefits that would average about $400 less per person if the House’s block grant proposal were enacted.

Heather Higginbottom is Deputy Director of the Office of Management and Budget