Food Stamps At The Heart Of Farm Bill Political Drama

When the House passed its version of the farm bill earlier this month, one major section was missing: the nutrition title. That includes the food stamp program, now called SNAP.

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In Congress, the Farm Bill is in a holding pattern. The hang-up is in the House, where leaders only had enough votes to pass it by stripping out the food stamp program known as SNAP. That stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Now House Republicans are trying to deal with SNAP in a stand-alone bill.

NPR's Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: In dollars, food stamps are the largest part of the Farm Bill - 75 billion in 2012. According to the latest government figures, 47 million people are getting assistance through the program, a number that has risen dramatically since the start of the recession. And these benefits are at the heart of the political drama over the Farm Bill.

REPRESENTATIVE STEVE SOUTHERLAND: We have failed for five decades.

KEITH: Steve Southerland is a Republican congressman from Florida. He's author of an amendment that would have added tough new work requirements to the SNAP program. He believes government benefits have encouraged some people not to get jobs.

SOUTHERLAND: One thing we cannot put a number on is the number of casualties because people were never connected to their purpose in life.

KEITH: The majority of people on food stamps are either working or not expected to work because they're children, elderly or disabled. Andrea Taylor is currently in the midst of a health crisis. She and her three kids live in Anadarko, Oklahoma and rely on the about $550 a month in food stamps she receives.

ANDREA TAYLOR: This is our pantry. And you see what my kids love the most is cereal...

KEITH: There are jumbo sized bags of store brand cereal on the top shelf.

TAYLOR: If you notice, a lot of everything is generic. And I'm telling you, you know, it's almost the end of the month so a lot of my stuff is cut down.

KEITH: Taylor says she's been getting food stamps for about a year and a half, as she's looked unsuccessfully for work. Her current health problems are making the food aid even more essential.

TAYLOR: If it wasn't for this, we pretty much would starve.

KEITH: It's not clear what the Farm Bill would mean for her. A version of the House Farm Bill that would have cut $20 billion, or about two and a half percent from the food stamp program over a decade, failed because conservative Republicans didn't think it went far enough. And Democrats said the cuts were too steep.

The man in the House charged with trying to balance these differences is Taylor's congressman, Oklahoma Republican Frank Lucas.

REPRESENTATIVE FRANK LUCAS: Man, it's pushing a big boulder up a tall hill.

KEITH: That was Lucas in an appearance on AgTalk Radio. He's chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. And his question for his Republican colleagues is: If the $20 billion in food stamp cuts wasn't enough, what will be enough?

LUCAS: I'm just not sure what the final solution will be and if I can secure a majority of the House for any particular plan.

KEITH: And on his left there are Democrats, who in the past have always helped farm bills pass but have no intention of supporting major changes and cuts to the food stamp program.

Jim McGovern is a Democrat from Massachusetts.

REPRESENTATIVE JIM MCGOVERN: Look it, I believe that food ought to be a right. This is the United States of America. We're the richest, most powerful country in the world. The fact that we have 50 million people in this country who are hungry, 17 million who are kids, we should all be ashamed.

KEITH: Back in Anadarko, Andrea Taylor isn't keeping close tabs on the congressional back and forth. She would greatly prefer not to have to rely on the system, but right now says she needs the help.

TAYLOR: I thank God it's there. I pray that it doesn't ever go away. Not just for me or my kids but, you know, for those out there that need it, because it does help.

KEITH: House Republicans are still working to come up with a plan for how to proceed with food stamps. That plan would likely include deep cuts. The Senate Farm Bill passed last month left benefits largely unchanged.

Tamara Keith, NPR News.

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