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Subsidies for Me, But Not for Thee

If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.

— John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address

One of the questions the curious voter from time to time wonders, is how a person can distinguish good government handouts from bad government handouts. The answer to that question is not as obvious as it would seem to be to the uninitiated.  The question was most recently posed (and answered) by U.S. Representative, Stephen Fincher, a member of the House of Representatives from the 8th Congressional District in Tennessee.

Mr. Fincher has distinguished himself by standing up for the right of the poor to prove their self-sufficiency by not partaking of the food stamp program.  Because the poor are not always as motivated as they should be and in the case of parents with children but without funds to care for them, unable to keep their lives together, Mr. Fincher believes they should work harder to earn what they require to live as he, and others like him, do.  The problem he is helping them address is their dependence on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program formerly known as the food stamp program.

According to the Department of Agriculture, an estimated 14.5 percent of American households “were food insecure” some time during 2012.” The Department of Agriculture says people who are food insecure have 26% less money to spend on food than households where hunger is not a member of the family.  People who have food “security” are people who have access “at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.” As a result of the recession from which the country is slowly recovering, almost 48 million Americans out of a population of 313.9 million are now receiving food stamps to help them avoid becoming “food insecure.”   As part of the budget negotiations that are taking place during the rare times when members of Congress are not on vacation, Republicans are proposing that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program formerly known as the food stamp program be itself reduced by $40 billion over the next 10 years.  If that goal is met it is estimated that in excess of four million people will lose their food stamps and join the ranks of the “food insecure.” The legislation that the House hopes will accomplish this is part of the 2013 Farm Subsidies Bill that the House hopes to vote on by the end of September.  One of the enthusiastic supporters of the bill and its attendant cuts to the food stamps program is Mr. Fincher.

Mr. Fincher is a member of the House Committee on Agriculture and in May he and many of his colleagues on that Committee voted in favor of a bill that increases farm subsidies for crop insurance and decreases funding for food stamps.  Following his vote in May he explained it saying: “The role of citizens, of Christianity, of humanity, is to take care of each other, not for Washington to steal from those in the country and give to others in the country.”  Quoting the Bible to explain what might otherwise be seen as excessively stingy he said:  “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”  Eating is not the same thing as farming.  Farming is what produces the stuff that those who can afford it eat and helping farmers with subsidies is not, as Mr. Fincher would be the first to tell you, the same as stealing from those in the country and giving to others in the country.

According to the Environmental Working Group, a research organization that keeps track of government subsidies, Mr. Fincher is one of the biggest beneficiaries of federal farm subsidies.  Between1995 and 2012 Fincher Farms in Tennessee received payments totaling $4,180,287, almost all of that from commodity subsidies. In collecting those subsidies his farm was one of the ten percent in Tennessee that collected 87 percent of all subsidies paid in that state.  Seventy eight percent of Tennessee farms received no subsidies.

Of course neither the farm program nor food stamps are without their limits.  Assistance under the food stamp program comes to an end if the recipient has modest amounts of income calculated under formulae published by the federal government.    The gross income for a family of three must be below 130 percent of the poverty line or $25,400 a year, its net income must be below the poverty line and it must have assets of $2000 or less in order to qualify for food stamps.  Similarly, there are limits on how much a farmer can earn before losing subsidies.  A farmer, like Mr. Fincher,  who earns more than $750,000 in farm income or $500,000 in non-farm income is no longer eligible to participate in the farm subsidy program.

There are just a few weeks left before the fiscal year comes to a close.  It appears likely that Congress may extend the farm bill for another year.  If it gets to a vote it is obvious how Mr. Fincher will vote.  After all, he’s a farmer, not a filcher like the hungry and the poor.

Christopher Brauchli is a lawyer living in Boulder, Colorado. He can be emailed at brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu.

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