Why Detroiters should care about cuts to the Farm Bill

For years, Jean received only $24 a month in federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. (Note: Jean is not her real name.) Jean, who is an African-American Detroiter, says that securing this money was difficult because of the paperwork and legwork required. Even so, the $24 was important. "It was appreciated. I have gratitude for that," she says.

Her fortunes improved somewhat last year when a social worker helped her secure $142 a month in SNAP benefits—or about $1.57 for the ninety or so meals that she might eat every month. Money that, she says, "makes a big difference because it helps supplement my income and helps me to meet my needs."

The program hasn't alleviated all her food needs and she still occasionally uses food pantries. "That's all the food benefits are doing for anyone," Jean says. 

This is by design. SNAP is meant to be "supplemental"—one piece of a larger network of public and private initiatives that helps vulnerable Americans. But things could get more difficult for people like Jean if the Trump administration's proposed cuts to the Farm Bill and other programs for the 2018 Fiscal Budget were to pass.

A child at the Hope Center

The prospect of cuts to the Farm Bill may not immediately disturb Detroiters who don't work directly in agriculture. What many people may not know is that the Farm Bill encompasses the SNAP program, otherwise known as "food stamps" or the "Food Assistance Program" in Michigan. According to the Congressional Budget Office, almost 80 percent of the most recent Farm Bill was composed of SNAP and other funding for nutrition programs. 

In order to be eligible for SNAP, a family generally needs to be at 130 percent of the federal poverty line or below, which means making $26,100 or less for a three-person family. Certain deductions from this total can be made to account for high housing costs or childcare. There are also limits on the assets SNAP recipients can possess. Currently about 15 percent of Michiganders receive SNAP benefits; in Wayne county the number is closer to 24 percent. The average family receives a little over $250 per month

Trump's budget would cut SNAP by about 25 percent. These cuts could make life difficult for Detroit's already struggling families, and put pressure on the city's few grocery stores which rely on SNAP dollars as a percentage of overall sales, as well as the region's overburdened food pantries and food banks. 

The cuts could also have serious repercussions for Michigan farmers. Agriculture is the state's second largest industry and it benefits from SNAP and other programs associated with the Farm Bill like Double Up Food Bucks that incentivize recipients to purchase fresh, local produce. According to the Fair Food Network, more than 1,000 Michigan farmers benefit annually from Double Up and SNAP purchases. 

But could there be justification for these cuts? After all, national unemployment is at a 16-year low of 4.3 percent, and Michigan's unemployment rate is now below 4 percent. While Detroit's is still above 8 percent, could this nonetheless be a good time to stop measuring, as Trump appointee and director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney says, "compassion by the number of programs or the number of people on those programs, but by the number of people we help get off of those programs"?

Kaitlin Skwir from The Food Bank Council of Michigan—an organization that provides support and advocacy for food banks in the state—would seem to disagree. "We know that things are improving in the state of Michigan," she says. "We have a better unemployment rate. But that in turn means that people are no longer eligible for benefits."

She also points out that food banks, which are already operating at capacity, provide only about 10 percent of the food that SNAP does. 

Part of the problem relates to the nature of the economic recovery we are experiencing, as well as the insufficiency of other social programs. Jean, for example, doesn't live in subsidized housing, and pays market-rate rent. She does receive a stipend from a job training program, but that is also threatened by budget cuts. 
Rachelle Bonelli - photo by Marvin Shaouni
Rachelle Bonelli, vice president of programs for Gleaners Community Food Bank, says those suffering from food insecurity are, "constantly making choices between do I buy food, do I buy medicine, do I pay my utility bills, do we pay the rent?"

When faced with fixed expenses like rent and utilities, they spend less on food because, as she says, "You can skip meals, you can buy cheap food."

And these problems aren't necessarily limited to the unemployed. 40 percent of the families receiving SNAP benefits in Michigan are in working families, a number close to the national average. As a paper by Brynne Keith Jennings and Vincent Palacios from the progressive think tank The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities says, "Some of the most common occupations in the country have low wages, unpredictable scheduling, and few benefits. Workers turn to SNAP to supplement low and fluctuating pay and to help them get by during spells of unemployment."

They also note that, "up to 30 percent of Americans work in jobs with pay that would barely lift a family above the poverty line, even if they were working full-time, year-round."

These jobs are often in retail, food preparation, and the service industry—sectors that are expected to grow in the near future. Even government employees are sometimes forced to rely on SNAP, like the 23,000 military families that currently receive it.

In light of all this, SNAP could perhaps be construed as a form of corporate welfare that allows businesses to keep paying their employees low wages. Rather than cutting benefits, however, Jennings and Palacios propose changes to labor policy like raising the minimum wage to help get people off SNAP. 

Skwir emphasizes that SNAP is a highly flexible program which allows workers to receive benefits during periods of brief unemployment or a drop in wages. "The program is working the way it's designed to and when people don't need the program anymore then they're not keeping it," she says. "The proposed budget cuts would affect that ability to be flexible."

And this doesn't even touch on the large number of children, people with disabilities, and seniors that rely on the SNAP program. More than 60 percent of SNAP recipients are families with children and 35 percent are families with elderly or disabled family members. "It's the weakest among us who will really suffer, which is the saddest part," says Winona Bynum, director of the Detroit Food Policy Council.

Winona Bynum, executive director of the Detroit Food Policy Council

As Bonelli points out, this could mean children coming to school hungry and having a reduced capacity to learn. Or seniors having to choose between medicine and food. The long term societal costs could be significant.

More immediately, Bynum cautions that SNAP cuts could affect local grocery stores, food businesses, and the economy as a whole. According to her, these dollars are almost always spent locally and circulate in the economy several times. "In Detroit, the food system is the number three employer," she says. "A slowing of that economy … could really have detrimental impacts."

It's perhaps unlikely that this huge SNAP cut will actually come to pass. Mike Conaway, the Republican Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, has expressed opposition to the cuts as have other members of the committee. But it's worthwhile to take stock of this program that plays such a big role in our communities. 

Jean, for one, doesn't buy the logic of budget cuts. "I guess they're designed to make people more motivated or whatever," she says. "I just don't see that."

This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.

All photos, except where mentioned, by Doug Coombe
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Read more articles by Brian Allnutt.

Brian Allnutt is a Detroit-based writer and a co-owner of Detroit Farm and Garden.