About every five years, Congress reconsiders the farm bill. The package deals with most affairs regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The bill also funds the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) — what used to be called “food stamps.”
Millions of Texans depend on SNAP to help buy food every month, and recent attempts by the U.S. House to change the program didn't work because the bill lacked votes. The Senate, however, is expected to release its own version of a farm bill this June.
Rachel Cooper, a senior policy analyst with the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin, talked with me about SNAP and the future of the farm bill.
How SNAP currently works:
SNAP is really designed to help make up the difference that families have in their budgets — what they can afford out of their own earnings — so that they can purchase enough food for the househould. Basically, when a family applies for SNAP, they say not only how much money they earn, but also what some of their basic expenses are, like how much they pay in housing, childcare and medical expenses if they're elderly.
And then once all of that is calculated, the government says, "OK, this is what we think it should cost as a miniumum for you to feed your size of family, and given how much money you have to spend on food, we will give you X number of dollars in food stamps to make up the difference."
On the proposed changes that failed in the House:
[The House farm bill] was really undermining the nutrition part of the program, and instead turning it into a workforce development program. SNAP has always had rules about folks needing to work who can work, but the progam was being changed in a way that was really going to hurt Americans and low-income families who needed food.
It definitely failed because it didn't have enough votes. Every Democrat voted against the bill, a handful of moderate Republicans voted against the bill, and then there were a group of Freedom Caucus Republicans — more right-wing Republicans — who voted against it for their own various reasons. Some didn't think the farm bill went far enough, they wanted more restrictions, especially on the pieces about farm subsidies. And there was also some political deal-making they were trying to do to force an immigration bill later in June.
What the Senate is planning:
So far all signs are that the Senate is going to step back and really do what we've always wanted, which is a bipartisan bill. SNAP has always worked and the farm bill has always worked because it's always been a bipartisan process. The farm bill touches every part of America, it touches farmers and ag producers, but it also touches millions of Americans who rely on SNAP. It's always been a process that needed both parties to come together to find solutions. So far the Senate has committed to doing that and so we're hoping to see that. We haven't seen their bill yet, but we're hopeful.
Interview responses have been edited for length and clarity.