The Trump administration is highly selective in how it applies the standard of “self-sufficiency” for programs. To move food stamp beneficiaries toward that goal in all states, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue laid out a plan to strengthen work requirements for federal beneficiaries by April 2020.
The new rule makes it more difficult for states, no matter if they have areas of economic distress, to waive a requirement that able-bodied adults work at least 20 hours a week to maintain their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamp) benefits. The new measure could eliminate benefits for nearly 700,000 adults (it would not affect food stamp recipients with dependents, those over age 50, those with a disability or pregnant women).
“Government dependency has never been the American dream,” Mr. Perdue said. “We need to encourage people by giving them a helping hand but not allowing it to become an indefinitely giving hand.”
But Republican distaste for “government handouts” seems to be strictly on a case-by-case basis. For example, with the Farm Bill, Mr. Perdue and others within the party are quite comfortable turning a blind eye to corporate welfare and crony capitalism. And “handouts” — or if you prefer, “bailouts” — to wealthy agribusinesses are not limited to the Farm Bill. Over the past year, as farmers throughout America were hit hard by President Trump’s trade wars, the administration put together a $28 billion package that, according to some reports, could actually be overpaying some farmers for their losses.
The list goes on. Last year, House Republicans wanted to make it possible for 10 percent or more of the nation’s commodity farms to receive unlimited subsidy payments. They sought to remove payment limitations from marketing assistance loan gains and loan-deficiency payments and tried to make it easier for general partnerships to reorganize as “family farms” and thus qualify for greater subsidy payments. The House version of the Farm Bill also exempted certain business arrangements — partnerships, joint ventures, LLCs and Subchapter S corporations — from the adjusted gross income means-testing provision, a measure that has so far limited commodity and conservation payments to the nation’s wealthiest producers.
To be sure, the struggles of many farmers across the country are real and troubling, but the farm bailout’s aid payments are not getting to some truly struggling farms. The Environmental Working Group found that most bailout money has gone to the nation’s biggest farms. One farm has received $2.8 million in payments. With the aid they’ve received from the Trump administration this year, some farmers will net their highest profits in six years.
In essence, the Trump administration’s measures are aimed at making it easier for wealthy Americans to receive unlimited government handouts — to, in the words of Mr. Perdue, secure for themselves an “indefinitely giving hand.”
Ever since the New Deal, the farm-focused portion of the Farm Bill has been geared toward providing economic aid to farmers — and both farmers and Congress have “clearly moved away from the Jeffersonian ideal that championed minimal government and maximum personal independence,” as R. Douglas Hurt writes in his book “Problems of Plenty.” Farm Bill subsidy recipients are often deeply dependent on the federal government for support.
Yet rather than speaking of this as laziness, or bemoaning the burden this causes for taxpayers, Mr. Perdue and others within the administration bolster supports for the nation’s largest, wealthiest agricultural producers.
This is not to suggest that there is no need in rural America for investment, reform and assistance. Many farm communities are hurting, but very few federal dollars go to the small to midsize farmers who actually need assistance. About 75 percent of total subsidy payments go to the largest 10 percent of farming companies. Agribusiness monopolies eat away at farmers’ profit, from the seeds they grow to the chemicals they buy to the supply chain that gets their product to market. Tens of thousands of farms have gone under in recent years, and farmer suicides are alarmingly high. The opioid crisis is as intense in farm country as it is in other geographic areas, and many parts of rural America are plagued with the same “food deserts” that plague many urban neighborhoods.
Mr. Perdue isn’t wrong when he says that the American dream does not consist of government dependency. But utter self-sufficiency is, if we are honest, impossible for most of us. People will always need a “safety net” of sorts — but ideally, we should want people to find that support in community, family, churches and associations, as well as other local ties, not (or at least not only) through a distant government bureaucracy.
That said, at a time when many local social threads have broken, and our society is increasingly fragmented and frayed, there is a need for the government to provide support where no other support is available.
Mr. Perdue and others in Washington assume that stringent work requirements will push food stamp recipients to find the number of working hours necessary for eligibility. They suggest, without saying so explicitly, that any unemployment currently experienced by these beneficiaries is because of laziness, not lack of opportunity.
But many people in both rural and urban areas of America know that reality is a lot messier than this. Available work is not distributed evenly over every state or region. Threatening to take away someone’s food stamps until they find steady work does nothing to solve the problems of postindustrial collapse, community breakdown, economic inequality, racism, systemic poverty, homelessness or drug addiction that have prompted many to find help in the first place — just as a farm bailout does nothing to repair the economic, cultural and political conditions that are feeding our current farm crisis.
But as farmers’ plight has grown, they’ve been offered the “indefinitely giving hand” that Mr. Perdue does not want food stamp recipients to receive. It seems hypocritical to demand that the poorest Americans pull themselves up by their bootstraps while covering the business risk of the nation’s wealthiest agribusinesses.
So if Mr. Perdue and the Trump administration want to foster fiscal self-sufficiency, perhaps — rather than starting with Americans struggling to put food on their table — they should start at the top of the food chain instead.
Gracy Olmstead is a writer who contributes to The American Conservative, The Week, The Washington Post and other publications.