THOUGHT FOR FOOD Hun­gry for change

The av­er­age food stamp pay­out is just $3 a day. We could in­crease that by cut­ting agri­cul­tural sub­si­dies.

Los Angeles Times - - Opinion -

If you think the U.S. gov­ern­ment is too gen­er­ous to the poor, try sur­viv­ing on the food stamp diet, as four mem­bers of Congress pledged to do this week. They have to feed them­selves on $21 a week, or $3 a day, which is the av­er­age pay­out to food stamp re­cip­i­ents.

For most fam­i­lies on food stamps, that amount hasn’t changed much since 1996, when Congress un­der­took a ma­jor wel­fare over­haul and added re­stric­tions to the pro­gram aimed at cut­ting the num­ber of peo­ple who could qual­ify. Be­cause the key for­mula for com­put­ing food stamps for most fam­i­lies isn’t in­dexed to in­fla­tion, the amount one can buy with them has been fall­ing for the last decade.

Congress is now ne­go­ti­at­ing the 2007 farm bill, a five-year blue­print for the na­tion’s agri­cul­tural sup­ports that also in­cludes the food stamp pro­gram. The pair­ing is a relic of the De­pres­sion era, when food stamps were cre­ated as a way of feed­ing the poor us­ing Amer­i­can farm­ers’ sur­plus crops. Though that’s no longer the case, farm sub­si­dies and food stamps still have one thing in com­mon: Both are forms of food wel­fare. The dif­fer­ence is that while the poor and hun­gry are los­ing ground, wealthy agribusi­ness gi­ants con­tinue to hog their bil­lions.

The av­er­age monthly house­hold in­come of the 26 mil­lion Amer­i­cans who re­ceive food stamps is $648. Two of the mem­bers of Congress tak­ing the food stamp chal­lenge — Reps. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) and Jo Ann Emer­son (R-Mo.) — have in­tro­duced a bill that would pro­vide for small yearly in­creases in the pay­out and would re­vive ben­e­fits for some of the groups ex­cluded in 1996. This would add about $4 bil­lion a year to the $33bil­lion an­nual cost of the pro­gram. Such an in­crease could be off­set by break­ing the cul­ture of de­pen­dence of a group that is gen­uinely get­ting fat off the gov­ern­ment trough: farm­ers.

The U.S. spends about $20 bil­lion an­nu­ally on agri­cul­tural sub­si­dies, the vast ma­jor­ity go­ing to large com­mer­cial op­er­a­tions, not fam­ily farms. Th­ese pay­ments dis­tort trade, heighten poverty in the Third World and raise food prices for U.S. con­sumers. Con­tin­u­ing this pork­fest while the need­i­est Amer­i­cans go hun­gry is more than non­sen­si­cal — it’s im­moral.

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