Trump’s USDA budget plan roundly denounced
Presidential ag budgets have been dead on arrival on Capitol Hill before, but no budget may have been as dead as the one President Donald Trump sent up Feb. 12.
Everyone in the food chain, from members of Congress to farm leaders, crop insurance executives, anti-hunger activists and even grocery store lobbyists denounced it.
Trump’s budget proposes cutting SNAP and making a food package part of the benefits.
The budget also proposes eliminating premium subsidies, commodity payments and conservation program eligibility for farmers with Adjusted Gross Incomes over $500,000, and making many other changes to reduce payments to farmers.
The budget also proposed establishing user fees for many programs within USDA.
The budget plan would save $260 billion over 10 years, including $213 billion from SNAP. Farm program cuts would total $47 billion over 10 years, including $25 billion from crop insurance and $13 billion from streamlining conservation payments.
The critical comments started from Capitol Hill early in the day.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., in a joint statement, were subtle but got their point across:
“As chairmen of the Agriculture Committees, the task at hand is to produce a farm bill for the benefit of our farmers, ranchers, consumers and other stakeholders,” Conaway and Roberts said.
“This budget, as with every other president’s budget before, will not prevent us from doing that job. We are committed to maintaining a strong safety net for agricultural producers during these times of low prices and uncertain markets and continuing to improve our nation’s nutrition programs.”
Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., noted that the Trump budget request would cut the Agriculture Department budget by 16 percent, and said it is “out of touch with our farmers, families, and rural communities.”
“The proposed cuts to both the USDA and the farm bill would hurt American agriculture, neglect rural businesses, and leave families and seniors behind,” Stabenow said. “This is especially troubling given the state of the fragile rural economy. If taken seriously, this budget would make it impossible for congress to pass a farm bill this year.”
“Our farmers and small towns can count on me to oppose these cuts and instead work to pass a bipartisan farm bill that supports our rural communities and families,” Stabenow said.
Reactions to SNAP
Comments from food-aid advocates began with reactions to the SNAP proposal, and the administration’s statement that “despite significant economic improvement and a strong recovery in the job market, enrollment in SNAP remains stubbornly high. The budget proposes a bold new approach to administering SNAP that combines traditional SNAP benefits with nutritious and 100 percent American-grown food provided directly to households.”
“Under the proposal, households receiving $90 or more per month in SNAP benefits will receive a portion of their benefits in the form of a USDA foods package, which would include items such as shelf-stable milk, ready to eat cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans and canned fruit, vegetables, and meat, poultry or fish,” the budget plan says. “The remainder of their benefit would go on the SNAP Electronic Benefit Transfer card for use at approved grocery retailers.”
The proposal would also limit eligibility and modify income and benefit calculations “to ensure benefits are targeted to the neediest households.”
The Food Research & Action Center said the budget “eviscerates one of the nation’s most successful programs.” Cutting SNAP spending by $217 billion over 10 years “can only be accomplished by cutting out of the program entirely or reducing assistance sharply for tens of millions of seniors, children, people with disabilities, working families, unemployed people and veterans,” FRAC added.
Replacing the system of using EBT cards to purchase food through grocery stores, supermarkets, farmers markets and other normal commercial channels will amount to “a Rube Goldberg-designed system of commodity distribution via food boxes that will be administratively costly, inefficient, stigmatizing and prone to failure, and that will return the country to Depression-era anti-hunger approaches,” FRAC said.
And even while the administration was proposing a shift to food packages, FRAC noted that the budget proposes eliminating the Commodity Supplemental Food Program that provides food boxes to seniors and people with disabilities, and eliminating SNAP nutrition education funding.
Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America, a nationwide direct service and advocacy organization, added, “It would require a massive new governmental bureaucracy to micro-manage the food consumption of low-income Americans.”
“Amazingly, this proposal would slash food aid but somehow manage to grow the size of big government,” Berg said.
“There’s no way one can improve nutritional outcomes in families on SNAP by reducing the amount of money they have available for fresh fruits, vegetables and milk This proposal would add stress to the nonprofits that serve these individuals and hurt the grocery industry by taking SNAP participants out of the grocery store. The best way to enable low-income Americans to obtain healthier food is to increase the purchasing power of the SNAP program to enable them to do so.”
The National WIC Association said it was “cautiously optimistic” that the budget fully funds the Special Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants and Children, but NWA President and CEO Douglas Greenaway added, “While the budget proposal’s prepackaged, delivered food box may seem helpful, no one picks out my groceries, and Americans of all stripes would be outraged if someone predetermined and selected what they would eat.”
“Removing choice from SNAP flies in the face of encouraging personal responsibility,” Greenaway said. “Without a nutrition prescription tailored to each family, a standardized food package may not meet the individual nutritional needs of the family, failing to accommodate medical conditions and allergies, and religious and cultural food needs.”
Food Marketing Institute Chief Public Policy Officer Jennifer Hatcher said the SNAP proposal “certainly makes major changes, but not changes that SNAP-authorized food retailers see as positive or even efficient.”
“FMI and our members have worked with the House and Senate Agriculture Committees and the USDA over several decades to achieve a national system, utilizing existing commercial infrastructure and technology to achieve the greatest efficiency, availability and lowest cost,” Hatcher said. “As we understand the proposal in the president’s budget to create a USDA commodity foods box of staples, each of these achievements would be lost.”
“Perhaps this proposal would save money in one account, but based on our decades of experience in the program, it would increase costs in other areas that would negate any savings,” Hatcher said.
“As the private partners with the government ensuring efficient redemption of SNAP benefits, retailers are looking to the administration to reduce red tape and regulations, not increase them with proposals such as this one.”
The Republican-leaning American Farm Bureau Federation said it opposes the reductions to USDA programs “because cuts of this magnitude in the current economic cycle are unwarranted and unwise.”
“Farmers and ranchers have always been concerned about high budget deficits and they have done more than their fair share over the years to reduce red ink,” Farm Bureau said. “Making these cuts only adds to the financial pressures farmers and ranchers are currently facing. Net income is projected to fall to its lowest level in 12 years. These cutbacks do nothing to improve their already difficult conditions.”
Farm Bureau said it is against the elimination of funding for the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program and P.L. 480 Food Aid: “We oppose eliminating of these programs, which are critical food aid programs that purchase U.S. commodities.”
The farm group also said it is opposed to the user fee proposals, and is worried about the rural development budget and a reduction to $18.4 billion in discretionary funding for the USDA in fiscal 2019.
“This is a decrease of 22 percent or $5.8 billion below current levels,” Farm Bureau said.
Roger Johnson, president of the Democratic-leaning National Farmers Union, noted that the Trump budget also cuts other programs important to rural Americans, including Medicare and Medicaid.
“To say that this budget is disappointing is an understatement. This administration has consistently demonstrated a lack of support for the most vulnerable populations, and this plan is just more of the same,” Johnson said.
“It is frankly disgusting that the government has offered corporations and the wealthiest among us a $1.5 trillion gift in the form of tax cuts while proposing deep cuts to programs so important for low- and middle-class Americans.”
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which represents small, environmentally minded farmers, said the Trump budget is “the most anti-rural, anti-farmer proposal the agriculture community has seen in years.”
“The proposals included in this budget request would undermine decades of investments in American agriculture,” said Greg Fogel, NSAC policy director.
“Farmers already facing major economic struggles will be further squeezed, rural communities will be at risk of losing desperately-needed tools and resources for job creation and enterprise development, low-income families will be denied critical nutrition support, and we will all feel the impact of a less sustainable food and agricultural system.”
NSAC said the budget request “guts” agricultural research, cutting the Economic Research Service’s budget by nearly 50 percent, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program by 23 percent, and the Agricultural Research Service by 14.5 percent, at a time when China and India are increasing their research investments.
The USDA’s Rural Business and Cooperative Service, which the proposal would eliminate, “is on the front lines of the fight against rural poverty, and has made tremendous strides to help rural businesses thrive,” NSAC said.
On conservation, NSAC noted that the administration wants to eliminate the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, and said the proposal to eliminate those programs is “drastically out of touch with the needs of farmers and rural communities.”
“USDA’s conservation programs are farmers’ first line of defense against drought, flooding, and other natural disasters — events that are increasingly more frequent.”
NSAC praised the provisions that would eliminate loopholes in Title I subsidy programs. But it said that “instead of making thoughtful adjustments to premium subsidy programs, the president proposes across-the-board cuts for all farmers, no matter the size.”
“Rather than unraveling the farm safety net, the president should focus on modernizing the federal crop insurance program so that it is more efficient and effective and works for small- and mid-size operations, beginning farmers, and rural communities,” NSAC said.
The American Association of Crop Insurers, Crop Insurance and Reinsurance Bureau, Crop Insurance Professionals Association, Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of America, National Association of Professional Insurance Agents, and National Crop Insurance Services issued a joint statement:
“It’s disappointing that OMB (the Office of Management and Budget) targets farmers’ risk management tools when they are most needed. Instead of weakening the crop insurance system, we should be asking how it can be restrengthened to help farmers dealing with weather disasters and low commodity prices.
“These proposals would make crop insurance unaffordable and unavailable for many farmers. And if such proposals were adopted, it would be difficult for the private sector to remain in business. In the absence of an effective private-sector delivery system, aid to rural America in times of crisis would be delayed and the taxpayers would suffer additional costs,” the statement said.
The crop insurance industry noted that Congressional Budget Office budget projections for crop insurance are down nearly $10 billion since the 2014 farm bill was enacted, and that farmers have spent nearly $15 billion on crop insurance premiums.
National Association of Conservation Districts President Brent Van Dyke said, “Once again, this administration is calling on American producers to do more with less.”
Within the conservation portfolio, Trump’s budget proposes a funding level of $669 million for Conservation Operations, a $200 million cut to the account that funds conservation planning and technical assistance. The budget also requests significant cuts to the Conservation Technical Assistance program within Conservation Operations.
In addition to eliminating the CSP and RCPP, Van Dyke noted, the budget also requests complete elimination of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Section 319 nonpoint source grant program, which helps address nonpoint pollution from agricultural as well as non-agricultural sources.
“Conservation planning is the lifeblood of voluntary conservation and the building block on which all other conservation programs stand,” Van Dyke said.
“Proposing extreme cuts to technical assistance programs at a time when the administration is asking for greater customer service just doesn’t add up. The president’s budget proposal is a reminder that we must continue educating our lawmakers about just how important locally led conservation efforts are to this country now and for future generations.” ❖