Corporate subsidies trump food stamps

The federal government is poised to take a big bite out of food stamps for the second time in less than three months - an unconscionable act made more egregious by linking it to legislation that continues to reward corporate agricultural interests with billions of dollars in farm subsidies.

The $1 trillion Farm Bill approved by the House of Representatives Wednesday and expected to be passed in the Senate today or Saturday will take food off the table for millions of Americans, including tens of thousands of low-income residents in Connecticut, U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, warned Thursday.

Rep. Courtney, who serves on the Agriculture Committee that drafted the legislation, was among all five Connecticut representatives to vote against it.

"Congress has lost its way. This ... is nothing more than reverse Robin Hood legislation that steals food from the poor in favor of crop subsidies for the rich," U.S. Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro, D-3rd District, said.

This newspaper agrees, but reluctantly accedes to prevailing sentiment that it will pass the Senate and ultimately be signed into law by President Barack Obama. Unfortunately, the powerful agriculture lobby representing growers of corn, cotton, soybeans, wheat, rice and other major cash crops has prevailed.

There is at least one defensible aspect of the legislation: While many subsidies would remain, direct payments would be eliminated and replaced by insurance programs against farm losses. Connecticut's dairy industry would be among those benefiting from this provision.

It may be small consolation, but as Rep. Courtney explained during an interview at The Day, the bill could have been worse. The House initially proposed a 5 percent reduction in the $80 billion-a-year food stamp program, but eventually compromised on 1 percent, or about $800 million a year.

"It's a haircut, not a gouging," Rep. Courtney said.

Still, the cuts would cost some 68,000 of the more than 400,000 families in Connecticut who receive benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program between $17 and $36 per month.

The problem for Connecticut and other northern states is that, under a complex formula outlined in the act, money for food stamps will now be siphoned from the federally supported Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. Those who live in colder climates therefore will bear a disproportionate share of the burden imposed by the Farm Bill's provisions.

Rep. Courtney said the law would not go into effect for another year, and he vowed to continue working toward revising the formula so that those faced with higher utility bills do not have to choose between heating and eating. Without a revised federal formula the state would have to increase its aid to needy families.

This newspaper recognizes that it has taken Congress two years to agree on a compromise Farm Bill, taking into account competing interests from different parts of the country, and this may be the best deal it could have hammered out.

The House vote was 251-166, and the Senate vote could be similarly lopsided, despite expected opposition from Connecticut's two Democratic senators, Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy.

An unusual alliance of liberals and ultra-conservatives have lined up against its passage, reinforcing the adage, as Rep. Courtney observed, that "politics often makes strange bedfellows."

Unfortunately, as so often is the case, the poor always seem to get kicked out of bed.

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