The Hagstrom Report

Agriculture News As It Happens


Ryan food stamp proposals complicate election and farm bill


The position that Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has taken on food stamps may not be of as much interest to voters as his position on Medicare, or of as much interest to farmers as his position on farm programs and crop insurance, but his proposal to turn food stamps into a block grant to the states will also have an impact on voters’ thinking and could complicate efforts to pass a farm bill this year.

Presumed Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney named Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, as his vice presidential running mate on Saturday.

Since the 1960s, reauthorization of the food stamp program has been key to convincing House members from urban and suburban districts and senators from mostly urban states to vote for the farm bill. While conservatives have criticized food stamps along with other social programs, polls show that most Americans approve of the food stamp program and liberals defend the program vigorously.

The budget that Ryan entitled “The Path to Prosperity” and which was passed by the House proposed cutting the supplemental nutrition assistance program (SNAP), better known as food stamps, by $133 billion over 10 years through a combination of stricter eligibility requirements, lower benefits and ultimately turning the program into a block grant to the states with a cap on the level of expenditures.

Ryan’s proposal has not become law and was not very well received on Capitol Hill or in agricultural circles.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said block-granting food stamps did not make sense. Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Pat Roberts, R-Kan., who saved the structure of the food stamp program in the 1996 farm bill, praised Ryan for writing a budget but said he considered the food stamp proposal only a starting point for discussion.

Under instructions from the Budget Committee, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., held a markup on a proposal to cut food stamps by $33 billion over 10 years and it passed on a voice vote.

But the farm bill passed by the House Agriculture Committee would cut food stamps by only $16.5 billion over 10 years. The Senate-passed bill would cut it by $4.5 billion.

The Food Marketing Institute and the National Grocers Association joined liberal groups and state and local government organizations in opposing the block grant proposal.

Ryan’s views on food stamps also may contribute to a split in the Catholic vote in the election. Conservative Catholics are likely to approve of Ryan’s stands on abortion and other social issues, but liberal Catholics have already issued press releases criticizing him for his views on programs that benefit the poor.

“Mitt Romney’s newly announced vice presidential candidate, Catholic Congressman Paul Ryan, has a long-standing standing relationship with the teachings of atheist philosopher Ayn Rand,” Catholics United said on Saturday. “Because of their stern pronouncements against serving the weak, poor and marginalized, the teachings of Ayn Rand are antithetical to Catholic social teaching.”

Bob Blancato, chairman of the Italian American Democratic Leadership Council, also said Saturday, “Paul Ryan has made much of his Catholicism, claiming that his budget plan to destroy Medicare, cut investments in education and aid to the needy is in the Catholic tradition. This is not the Catholic Church that I, nor other Italian Americans, grew up in.”

The U.S. Conference of Bishops said in April that Ryan’s budget failed a “basic moral test” and that Congress should put the poor first in budget priorities.

Ryan defended the proposal along with other social program cuts in a speech at Georgetown University in April.

“Our budget offers a better path, consistent with the timeless principles of our nation’s founding and, frankly, consistent with how I understand my Catholic faith,” Ryan said. “We put our trust in people, not in government. Our budget incorporates subsidiarity by returning power to individuals, to families and to communities.”

He added, “Simply put, I don’t believe the preferential option for the poor means a preferential option for big government.”

The prospect of Ryan as vice president could energize conservatives who want to cut the food stamp budget and make it harder to assemble votes for a farm bill, at least before the election. Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind., said recently that splitting food stamps and farm programs into separate bills would be a way to cut the size of the food stamp program.

In his budget document, Ryan noted that the number of SNAP recipients has grown from 17.3 million people in 2001 to 23.8 million in 2004 to 46.6 million in 2012, and that the cost of the program has grown along with it. It now costs about $80 billion per year.

Ryan acknowledged that much of this growth was due to the recession, but also noted that the Agriculture Department beginning with the George W. Bush administration has attempted to inform low-income people of their eligibility and to encourage them to enroll.

“The trend is one of relentless and unsustainable growth in good years and bad,” Ryan wrote. Congress, the budget document said, should convert SNAP into a block grant tailored for each state’s low-income population, indexed for inflation and eligibility beginning in 2016 after employment has recovered.

“That aid should be made contingent on work or job training,” the document said.

States, it added, have had a “flawed incentive structure” that rewards them for signing up more beneficiaries, and so the state subsidy should be capped and states should be given incentives to come up with innovative ways to aid those who need the aid and to reduce rolls. Time limits should also be imposed, the document said.