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2006 Budget Reconciliation: A Challenge and an Opportunity

 
The House and Senate Agriculture Committees must find savings of $3 billion in programs under their jurisdiction, a daunting challenge to be sure, one that will require hard decisions.  But in meeting this challenge, lawmakers also have an opportunity to make decisions that will implement wise policy choices in three essential programs.

The Food Stamp Program: Cuts Will Mean More Hungry People

The US bishops have stated that a primary goal of food and agricultural policy should be providing basic food and nutrition for all, and that domestic food assistance programs should be strengthened to ensure that no one in America goes hungry or suffers malnutrition.

The food stamp program is our nation’s first line of defense against hunger.  Last year, about 23 million people a month participated in the program, receiving on average $86 per month.  This assistance helps working families make it through the month with enough food; can mean the difference between success and failure for single mothers struggling to make the transition from welfare to work; and provides children, the elderly and those with disabilities with the nutrition they need to maintain good health.

Yet just over half of those who qualify for food stamp receive them.  Indeed, 36 million Americans - 13.3 million of them children - suffered from hunger or lived in homes that are on the edge of hunger in 2003.

The food stamp program today is operating more tightly than ever. Both the GAO and the Department of Agriculture have recently reported all time highs in food stamp payment accuracy rates over the past two years – the program’s accuracy rate was 94.12% in 2004.  That’s good news – but it means there is very little fat in the program.  Any cuts in foods stamp funding will likely result in taking food away from people who need it who are being helped now – and leave no resources to reach out to those who are eligible but are not getting food stamp assistance.

Conservation: A Commitment to Creation

The U.S. Bishops have made protecting God’s creation a central goal of agricultural policies. We strongly support policies that promote conservation, such as the Conservation Security Program (CSP), a landmark stewardship incentive program that was adopted as part of the 2002 Farm Bill. The CSP provides income enhancement to farmers for clean water, better soil management, improved habitat, energy efficiency, and other natural resource benefits. The CSP has been successful at encouraging farmers and ranchers to improve their conservation standards.  Funding for the program, however, has not achieved the levels contemplated in the Farm Bill.  We urge the Committees to remain committed to the success of agriculture conservation programs as they implement their reconciliation instructions.

Farm Policy: Supporting Farmers in the U.S., Helping Farmers in Developing Countries

The U.S. bishops support measures that address the needs and interests of small and moderate-sized farms and farmworkers—both at home in the United States and overseas.

As the Bishops stated in their 2003 agricultural pastoral, limited government resources for subsidies and other forms of support should be targeted to small and moderate-sized farms, especially to help them through difficult times caused by changes in global agricultural markets or weather patterns that destroy crops. Capping federal farm payments and targeting them to those who need them the most would save money and help family farms be more competitive in a volatile market.

The bishops’ support for targeted subsidies and other programs for small and moderate-sized farms in the United States is coupled with the recognition that greater access to local, regional, and international markets is essential for agricultural development in poor countries.

U.S. agriculture competes within a global marketplace. The bishops hold that U.S. subsidies and other barriers that undermine market access for poorer countries should be substantially reduced and should be focused on policies that minimize the direct and indirect effects on prices of agricultural goods. Limiting U.S. farm supports would increase the possibility that poor farmers around the world would be able to sell their products, support their families and be less reliant on assistance program from overseas.

Conclusion: Sound Policy Protects the Poor at Home and Abroad

While the task at hand for the Committees is to meet a budget requirement to reduce spending,  decisions should be based on sound policy grounds.  By taking a hard look at farm subsidy policy and making changes that will continue to protect family farmers here, while helping poor farmers overseas, the Committee can generate savings that can meet, or help to meet, the $3 billion target.  Sound policy on subsidies can help to protect funding for the food stamp program and conservation programs, which the bishops strongly believe should continue to receive full funding.

 


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