Be forewarned. This is rant.
I read an op-ed piece in the New York Post today with which I could not disagree more. In it, the writer tried to make the case for discontinuing agricultural subsidies or more particularly doing away with the Department of Agriculture completely. In the writers’ words, “In these days of record federal deficits and unsustainable national debt, it is long past time to eliminate the department — or least rename it “The Department of Food Subsidies.”
Victor Davis Hanson makes some valid points, if his piece is factually correct when he calls attention to seventy percent of a record $20 billion in subsidies going to America’s richest farmers. He claims,”In a brilliantly conceived devil’s bargain,” the USDA “gives welfare to the wealthy while sending more than $70 billion to the lower income brackets in food stamps.” He goes on to decry food stamp recipients and reparation payments to African American farmers previously discriminated against in farm loan programs such that “the number of would-be recipients claiming past discrimination far exceeds the number who actually farmed.”
I think it can be presumed that Mr. Hanson is no farmer. While I would agree that the agricultural subsidy program desperately needs revision, I think he forgets the intention of the program itself. The spirit of the subsidy program is to prevent a glut on the market of agricultural products in order for American farmers to compete on the world market with countries whose subsidies far exceed that of the U.S. It is not simply a hand-out to the rich. This was a disagreement I had with former Kentucky Senator Wendall Ford (D) some years ago and for which he refused to discuss. I don’t know whether it was because I was not a member of his party at the time, or he was so entrenched in his beliefs that he could not see beyond the end of his nose. In either case, our politicians are out of touch with farm realities, including those representing agricultural regions.
Where the subsidy program falls short is not in the idea of subsidies themselves, but in carrying forth the subsidies on land that has passed from one wealthy generation to the next without the land having been farmed for decades. If Joe Schmoe, living in Manhattan, owns thousands of acres of subsidized land that could be farmed, but is not, it is good for the small farmer to pay him not to farm and help keep down prices; however, a better plan is to pay thousands of small farmers currently in production, but faltering, a bonus on their crops and leave Joe Schmoe out of the equation entirely, since he has no intention of farming anyway. In other words, penalize absentee landowners and help the small struggling farmer to stay on the farm. It seems to me that a residency requirement and a maximum farm size is all that is needed to reduce the numbers receiving “welfare for the rich” and more fairly distribute the currently budgetted monies.
I disagree with Hanson on the issue of food stamps as well, although I can only speak anecdotally for a recipient in Kentucky. I know personally of one woman who received less than $10,000 per year on social security disability, yet only qualified for $15 per month in food stamps. That hardly freed up money for “basket of snacks, alcohol and other nonessential goods,” unless washing detergent, soap, and toothpaste are non-essential goods. When the woman received a three percent COLA increase from Congress, the end result was an increase in rent in her low income housing, a doubling of her medicare payments, and a total loss of her food stamps. Stop and think about that. This woman had health problems that prevented her from working full time, although she worked most of her life at low-wage jobs (in part, because in the era she worked she earned less simply because she was a woman.) She was expected to pay rent, utilities, transportation, her 20% share of doctors’ visits plus a deductible, prescriptions, and food out of less than $10,000 per year! And in our generosity, we took back the $15 we paid her every month. Instead of complaining, we should be ashamed of even considering “cutting the budget” by starving our poor while giving insolvent banks money by which to pay bonuses to their top eschelons. How’s this for a solution: require the banks to pay the food stamp budgets directly. I know, “it ain’t gonna happen.”
As to “reparations,” according to the USDA in 2007, African American farmers made up less than 1.5 percent of the total farming population (the majority in the Deep South), down from 14% in the 1920s. The $1.25 billion dollars is not a budgetary figure per se, it is a class action settlement that was the culmination of DECADES of legal wrangling. If “reparations” are problematic for the federal budget, this is one cut that cannot be made. Keeping black farmers farming is good for future federal budgets as all farmers reach retirement age (African American farmers average 60.7 years of age) and can subsidize their incomes by farming rather than food stamps and other federal aid. Besides, the federal government in supporting the big white farmers (like those whose heirs and assignees now get undeserved subsidies) discriminated against African Americans…this was done in our era and should be remedied in our era. It is not about reparations–a word that has come to imply a pay-off.
Hanson’s final point: “The multilayered USDA has no real misSion [sic]. Its vital functions such as crop reporting and forecasting, food inspection and scientific research are buried beneath politically driven cash transfers and could easily be farmed out to other agencies” is utterly without merit. Would he suggest that crop reporting and forecasting fall under NOAA perhaps?! or food and scientific research under NIH?! Has he lost sight of the fact, that in spite of a huge bureaucracy in Washington, farmers, schools and rural communities across the nation rely on local agents of the USDA and the programs they administer?
If I sound bitter I am. We need fewer talking heads from ivory towers, who probably have never even seen a farm, and more dirt farmers speaking out for the agricultural community. And we need more of them working in the offices of our congressmen who seem to be following the former Kentucky Senator’s lead rather than thinking. This is not a partisan issue; it is about keeping America’s farmers working and keeping our food supply closer to the farm where it can be safely overseen by the USDA.