Commentary: Three strikes and out

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Amidst all the hand-wringing in the media over the rollout of Obamacare, the largest cuts in the history of USDA’s food stamp program (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) have taken place largely under the media radar.

The impact won’t be a positive one for animal agriculture.

The cuts went into effect on Nov. 1, when Congress allowed the increase built into the 2009 economic stimulus bill to expire. The reductions, which total about $5 billion, have affected some 47 million people who receive assistance from the SNAP program. That’s 1 in 7 Americans, more than half of whom, by the best estimates, are working the equivalent of a full-time job, although their incomes qualify them for the program.

Whatever your politics,  there are politicians who try to make the case that cutting off benefits to low-income families and the working poor is a good thing. They say it will spur them to work harder (or longer) to make up the difference with additional earnings — including, presumably, retired seniors on fixed incomes who also need to get off their duffs and get a job.

(By the way, to qualify for SNAP assistance a single person living alone cannot have an income greater than $958 a month, in which case they qualify for about $47 a week, or $1,293 for a couple, in which case they’ll get about $44 a month apiece).

Maybe cutting back on that level of largesse might influence some people to work harder — or smarter, as business gurus love to suggest — but here’s an impact that is impossible to dispute: As people’s food budgets shrink, whether due to underemployment, SNAP reductions or other constraints on other purchasing power, they will be forced to make hard decisions about what food products they can afford to buy.

The one category that gets reduced first, or in many cases, cut out altogether, is meat and poultry — especially when less nutritious alternatives, such as macaroni, are significantly less expensive.

(Proving that the past is prologue to the present, back in the 1990s, when it first became trendy to make your own fresh pasta with some expensive Italian-made appliance, the late, legendary Chicago columnist Mike Royko noted that when he was a kid, if your family served “spaghetti” to some guests you invited to dinner, the first question they’d ask is, “What happened? Did you lose your job?”)

With retail beef prices hovering nationally around $4.90 a pound, ground beef selling at somewhere around $3.20 a pound; with pork chops averaging over $3.30 a pound and boneless ham selling for $4 a pound, how big of a meat purchase are people going to consider with their $47 in food stamps that has to last the entire week?

Any way you slice it, the cuts in the SNAP program will hurt domestic sales of meat and poultry.

Food is non-discretionary

Beyond that, there’s the economy to consider. Without consumer purchasing power, both retailers and foodservice operators suffer in direct proportion to people’s loss of income. That’s because supermarket food purchases aren’t made with discretionary income, and given the frequency with which Americans subsist on out-of-home meals — especially fast-food — neither are restaurant purchases.

Taking food money away from people thus hurts the entire food industry, which includes the majority of livestock producers’ end customers.

The reason the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — the stimulus bill — increased SNAP benefits across the board was partly to mitigate the hardships imposed by the recession, but also as a highly functional way of delivering the best “bang-for-the-buck” stimulus to the overall economy.

When people receive food stamps, they’re spent fully, quickly and locally. Those dollars immediately recirculate in the local economy, which benefits all businesses, not just those selling food products.

Finally, for those who argue that private charities, churches and food banks can offset any gaps in people’s food budgets, here’s the salient fact: The fiscal 2014 SNAP cuts — not the whole program, just the $5 billion to be cut — exceeds the entire annual total of all private-sector food assistance nationwide. And virtually all of that food is already going to families who desperately need it.

These SNAP cuts, although they were agreed upon to fund programs keeping teachers employed and supporting Medicaid expansion in the states, are bad for the recipients, bad for the industry and bad for the economy.

You’d have to search to find another program “adjustment” with those three strikes.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.

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November, 20, 2013 at 07:13 AM

Does that mean they will have to eat hamburger instead of steak?? How can a government be so cruel?

Texas  |  November, 20, 2013 at 08:11 AM

You make it sound as if ALL they have to spend is $47.00/week for food. Nice Commie try. The use of expendable income on such REAL necessities as beer, wine, cigarettes, eating out every meal, fake finger nails, ETC really put a strain on the money left for food. Buy on sale, buy in bulk, cook enough for several meals at a time and freeze in meal size quantities. I do not buy all the tears for many on SNAP> The truly needy deserve help. The moochers should learn how to earn money for food.

Ohio  |  November, 20, 2013 at 09:24 AM

As one of the 53% that pay taxes - what your are saying is I should give people money so they can buy my product. Nice try. Also Food stamps we designed to pay for food for 3 out of 4 weeks. The 4th week they were suppose to use their other assistance - or their own income. Even at $47/week that is about $7/day. I can eat quite fine on $7/day. As food stamps were designed it works out to $62.67 / week or about $9 per day. And yes I could have steak once a week on that. However I could not buy steak to entertain my live in boyfriend 2 or 3 times a week. Find out about how the program actually works before you try to be an expert.

November, 20, 2013 at 11:48 AM

"Nice Commie try." That terminology went out, or should have, in the 50s. Find a more current catch phrase. That one detracts from, rather than adds to, some of what you say later. If you're saying the list of approved products for SNAP purchase should be reduced to basic food, I agree 100%.

Midwest  |  November, 20, 2013 at 11:48 AM

I've seen too much abuse of the program to feel bad that it has less of our money to give away. I've seen women with fancy clothes, IPods and fancy phones, fancy manicure and jewelry use food stamps to buy groceries and then take them out to a late model BMW. Honest! Lots of folks are working the system.

Co  |  November, 20, 2013 at 11:51 AM

IMPEACH )Obama ( NOW !!!

Morganton, GA  |  November, 20, 2013 at 12:29 PM

I find your argument unpalatable ... IT'S NOT THE LACK OF FOOD STAMPS ... IT'S THE LACK OF KNOWLEDGE AND EDUCATION IN NUTRITION AND HEALTHY FOOD CHOICES ... that's the problem. Let's go back to the days of the USDA Home Economics Nutritionists who visited people's homes and taught cooking, canning, shopping skills, and home making skills. Why not lobby for all Food Stamp Recipients to have regular home visits to insure that the recipients are purchasing wholesome foods? When Food Stamps was expanded to cover 'fast food' and 'restaurants' and 'junk food' is when YOU LOST your beef-eating and meat-eating base. FOOD STAMP RECIPIENTS DON'T BUY THAT MUCH BEEF ... unless it's for a BBQ and then they usually buy Pork or Chicken. [I've seen Food Stamp recipients purchase good cuts of beef to feed to their dogs!] LOBBY FOR BETTER NUTRITION CHOICES and not for more Food Stamps. Lobby for tighter restrictions on Food Stamps and no 'junk foods' and be sure that Food Stamp abusers are punished. MORE FOOD STAMPS WON'T SOLVE THE PROBLEM OF POOR NUTRITION AND POOR FOOD CHOICES. So work toward positive behavioral changes in food choices and less for expansion of Food Stamps. Promote good eating ... not bulk eating.

Gerald, MO  |  November, 20, 2013 at 12:40 PM

Beef producers, farmers, pork producers, chicken farmers - Please cry me a river! Whenever I am behind someone in the check out line the food stamp users are not the elderly, in wheel chairs, etc. They are usually over weight, young, employable types, that seem to have an appetite for junk food.

November, 20, 2013 at 10:32 PM

“Judge not lest yea be judged” and 'there but for the Grace of God go I' would best be remembered by folks dissing the SNAP program and recipients. The majority of SNAP recipients are children, elderly and disabled. The majority of folks who are of working age, and able to work, who receive SNAP benefits WORK! The SNAP benefit formula includes incentives for work. If you are certain of actual fraud, you have the duty to report it. If you are simply irritated by someone using benefits who wears nice clothes, drives a decent car, or has a cell phone you need to get a life and mind your own business. Someone doesn't look 'poor enough' to you? What does 'poor enough' look like? Maybe the phone was a gift. Maybe it is a friend's car. Maybe they own nice clothes from before they lost their job or went bankrupt. Maybe their sister did their nails or cut their hair. Maybe the jewelry was their grandmother's. The SNAP program is efficiently run with low fraud and waste. It helps our most vulnerable citizens and provides a helping hand to our neighbors who fall on hard times. The lack of compassion in these comments, if representative, speaks poorly of the agricultural community. As a working taxpayer, I do not begrudge helping my fellow Americans purchase food and I certainly do not envy the position of anyone who must rely on public assistance because there, but for the grace of God, go I.

Nebraska  |  November, 20, 2013 at 11:36 PM

As a resident of beef country, let me just say I know the smell of bull$@&#. Here's the problem with your little Marxist rant about the poor, working stiffs who need food stamps to buy meat. Those of us raising the meat are paying for the food stamps idiot. We wouldn't need to make as much, if the govt. allowed us to keep a FEW of the dollars WE EARN. Go sell communism somewhere else, I've had enough of supporting everyone's family but my own.

Nebraska  |  November, 20, 2013 at 11:42 PM

Diana, maybe you should do some research before you spout off those progressive talking points. The snap program is ripe with fraud and abuse. A recent audit by the Government Accountability Office found that there were absolutely NO safeguards to stop it and none were in the works. They stated unequivocally that the fraud would not stop, because there is currently no way to detect it based on the system as a whole. If you want to help your fellow Americans then get out your checkbook. But, you have no right to have your hand in my pocket. Maybe the "lack of compassion" you speak of is Americans tired of being robbed by a federal govt that believes it has the right to redistribute OUR hard earned income. Charity is a local issue, NOT a federal govt. issue. But that's too hard you see, because on a local level everyone knows who the deadbeat is who just won't go to work. Anonymity is great for guilt. Go peddle socialism somewhere else.

nebraska  |  November, 20, 2013 at 11:47 PM

WOW< where do you people get the notion it is the job of the federal govt to teach us how to eat??? I have an idea, maybe the federal govt should adhere to the FEW and ENUMERATED powers granted it by the Constitution, one of which was NOT telling me what to eat. This govt has grown into a criminal leviathan and listening to the likes of you, now we know why. How about you figure out what to eat all by yourself? How about you feed your family and we'll feed ours? How about you read the constitution and figure out where you live. Then, if you still feel the need for the govt to tell you how to eat, maybe you can move to Europe or some other socialist haven and leave the rest of us alone.

November, 21, 2013 at 01:07 AM

As a resident of beef country I do not begrudge the dollar a day of my taxes which go to feeding the needy (SNAP, school lunches, WIC). And I am not the research deficient one here. SNAP has been shown to be efficient and effective because local charity does not cover the need. And as for the Constitution, I believe such activities fall under the 'promote the general Welfare' portion of the preamble. You can look it up if you aren't familiar with it.

shaun evertson    
Nebraska  |  November, 21, 2013 at 06:42 AM

As the country that produces the most abundant, nutritious, safest and least expensive food the world has ever known, we can certainly afford to feed those who cannot feed themselves. What we cannot afford is to have the government involved.

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