The Food Aid Bill: We Will Progress Step by Step

Last week, there was a great opportunity on Capitol Hill to pass a comprehensive, updated Farm Bill, which by a strange arrangement governs foreign food aid as well as the domestic Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, also known as the food stamp program). Thus far, there has been a frustrating series of reversals at all attempts to update or improve the bill.

American farm policy combines several outdated premises. First, it assumes that nothing has changed at home since the 1930s, when the Agricultural Adjustment Administration paid subsidies to farmers in order to ensure an adequate food supply. In spite of the takeover of big business' takeover of agriculture, the government still pays subsidies to the industry.

Second, foreign food policy is governed by Cold War ideology, as if nothing has changed abroad either, assuming that a future war against Russia or China would require the maintenance of many cargo ships and mariners. Thus, in 1954, legislation was passed that a majority of foreign food aid had to be shipped from the United States on ships registered in the United States. Even though there has not been a single instance when the United States has needed to call on these ships or mariners for military or wartime use, this grossly wasteful, misguided, and gratuitous policy remains in place. On top of the millions of dollars spent on these vessels, it is estimated that more than 40 percent of are owned by foreign companies. It is interesting to note that the Danish company Maersk is one of the leading opponents of changing the Farm Bill, which indicates how "American" these ships are. If the rules were changed, a few hundred maritime jobs might not be guaranteed, but the annual cost savings in shipping alone would be $100 million.

So far, attempts to reform any of the outdated policies have been met with defeat, from both sides of the political aisle. In a measure supported by the conservative Heritage Foundation, House members Ed Royce (CA-R) and Karen Bass (CA-D) introduced an amendment to the Farm Bill that would end "monetization," a practice whereby the government donates food to charities that then sell the food with the intention of using this money for activities that encourage development. Conservatives maintain that the monetization program has spent millions more than was necessary to give the aid. The amendment would also end the requirement that all food must be grown in the United States and shipped on American ships, so that cheaper alternatives can be used. This amendment has not been adopted.

The Senate version of the Farm Bill, the only version to pass anywhere, and various House versions maintain farm subsidies such as one for the sugar industry, which also is protected by limits on imported sugar. Farmers still receive more than $15 billion a year in subsidies; unfortunately, the one area that there appears to be a consensus on is cutting SNAP (food stamps). The Senate version would cut benefits by $3.9 billion over life of the bill, 10 years. For its part, the latest House version contained cuts of $20.5 billion over the same period. At a rate of $2 billion cuts per year, the version in the House would cut 2 million people from food stamps. The House defeated an amendment by Jim McGovern (D-MA) to restore all SNAP funds by cutting agricultural insurance (for example, on sugar), but it was defeated by a vote of 234-188, with Republicans almost exclusively opposed. Representative McGovern admonished the House: "The price of a farm bill should not be making more people hungry in America." On June 20, the House also defeated the draconian Republican bill by a vote of 234-195, although some Republicans complained that the cuts were not enough. There is a possibility that the next bill will actually cut more from SNAP.

Why is SNAP being cut when, according to the Wall Street Journal, the number of people on food stamps has increased 70 percent since 2008? The answer combines profound misunderstanding and perverse economics. Republicans, in considering the large increase of food stamp recipients while the economy is theoretically improving, have concluded that it is too easy to get food stamps, with some on the floor of Congress speaking to the camera and claiming falsely that people use their food stamp cards to bail themselves out of jail and other absurd stories. Thus, the key to stopping the increase in food stamps is just to cut the budget.

The reality is far removed from this political rhetoric. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a single person younger than 60 can have no more than $2,000 in a bank account and have a gross yearly income no greater than $14,532 in order to qualify for food stamps. The reasons that the number of people on food stamps has increased include that the poverty rate has risen and that the long-term unemployed have exhausted their savings and have been forced to use any available resource to survive. How is it that Congress, which gives the oil industry $7 billion a year in subsidies, has to cut more than $2 billion for food stamps that feed struggling Americans, 45 percent of whom are children?

Our religion demands that we oppose such efforts to give money to special interests while punishing the poor. Avraham, son of the Rambam, teaches:

Proper generosity does not entail spending money indiscriminately, in the ways that the common people appreciate; namely, that you would bestow much food and give gifts to whoever comes your way. Rather, proper generosity is the sharing of God's gifts with the needy and deserving (The Guide to Serving G-d 5:3).

Why are there so many efforts to impose means tests, drug tests, and other obstacles to eligibility for food stamps while the financial giants of this country were bailed out with a no-strings-attached $700 billion bailout in 2008? In a message that Congress needs to hear, the prophet Amos makes clear how G-d views our neglect and abuse of the poor of the world.

Thus said God: For three transgressions of Israel, [even] for four, I will not revoke [my wrath]. Because they have sold for silver those whose cause was just, and the needy for a pair of sandals. Ah, you who trample the heads of the poor into the dust of the ground, and make the humble walk a twisted course! Father and son go to the same girl, and thereby profane My holy name. They recline by every altar on garments taken in pledge, and drink in the House of their God wine bought with fines they imposed (Amos 2:6-8).

These have been sad days in Congress. There will be many other opportunities for victims but for now at least we must mourn the millions who could have been saved instead have perished. We lost this week, but there was also progress. Over 200 members are now on record as being in favor of reform who weren't before. The Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network wrote: "Today and the last several days reminded me why I moved to DC in the first place. A great policy debate and while we didn't win we have A LOT to work with. I for one can't wait for the next battle." Stephanie Mercier, a Senate Agriculture Committee staffer for over 20 years, said, "The status quo folks on food aid are the defensive for the first time-let's keep pushing them."

While a House version and a final Farm Bill have yet to be considered, we do not have much reason for optimism as AJWS continues to lead the way for the Jewish community to have a voice. May we feel strengthened to press our elected representatives to act in the interests of the American people and of our best values.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V'Aretz Institute and the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century." Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America."