When Bill Clinton signed the welfare overhaul in 1996, he and his supporters promised that its problems could be fixed later. One problem at the top of the list was the bill's savaging of the food stamp program, including sharp financial cuts and the removal of legal immigrants from its rolls. It wasn't fixed.
Six years and lots of empty plates later, there's a chance to make a considerable improvement--if the senators who see the need to fix it hold out. The 2002 farm bill, with a price tag of $75 billion, has passed both houses and is now in conference committee. The Senate version adds $8.9 billion to the nutrition budget, mostly for food stamps, and requalifies most legal immigrants, including all children and also the disabled--which would add an estimated 400,000 people. In determining general eligibility, it also takes a more realistic view of what poor people have to spend for shelter and to keep a car running. The House adds only a bit more than a third of that and, in the spirit of both the House leadership and the 1996 welfare bill, doesn't fix much.
The Senate pays for its nutrition increases by limiting the farm subsidies that can be paid to individual and corporate farmers. The House--and some senators--would rather keep the money flowing in the same old streams. "The problem is that the House doesn't like the payment limits," says Andy Fisher, spokesman for Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana. "You would think that members would be ashamed to take that position, but they're not."
It's one of the quirks of Washington that the major federal nutrition programs are part of the farm bill, written by legislators generally more interested in peanut price supports than peanut butter sandwiches. This year the bill was complicated by the large number of vulnerable Democratic senators from farm states--including Tim Johnson of South Dakota, Jean Carnahan of Missouri, Tom Harkin of Iowa and Paul Wellstone of Minnesota--and Democratic nervousness about the effect of subsidy limits on their chances this fall. But, insists Wellstone, "There's no reason why we can't get it right on both family farms and nutrition."
The issue comes up as the need for food help is surging, spiked by the unemployment jump of the past year--especially in areas like Florida and Las Vegas, where the drop in airline traffic belted low-wage (and heavily immigrant) tourism workers. America's Second Harvest, the national alliance of food banks, issued a call to action in February to raise 365 million pounds of food. "When legal immigrants lost eligibility," says Doug O'Brien of Second Harvest, "it just shifted responsibility from the federal government to food banks." With the small difference that it's a lot harder for food banks to pay for it.
In January the Bush Administration--driven by the realities of hunger in Texas and by GOP interest in the Hispanic vote--came out for sharply relaxing the legal immigrant exclusion, giving the idea momentum. The National Governors Association, seeing hunger from closer up than Congress does, backs the Senate bill.
But in early March the Senate plan was hurt by the discovery that its bill would cost $6 billion more than expected and more than the budget allowed. Still, the senators on the conference committee include longtime nutrition advocates like Lugar and Patrick Leahy, and a high-ranking Senate staff member insists that the Senate side has so far refused--even after the revelation of its faulty accounting--to put nutrition cuts on the table. "I'm very hopeful," says Representative Eva Clayton, the first black woman to represent North Carolina and described by O'Brien as a "heroine" on hunger issues. "The House has not been very strong or aggressive on the issue of nutrition. We really need a little more pressure on us."
Senators--and all those who think it's a good idea to feed more hungry Americans--should turn up the heat on the nutrition conference committee.