Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, attempt to remove the food stamp program from the farm bill lost on a 59-40 bi-partisan vote in the senate,
Johnson, with family and business ties to New London, said, “This isn’t a farm bill. This is a welfare bill.”
“This bill is a great example of what’s wrong in Washington,” Johnson said. “Decades ago someone realized that combining food stamps and agriculture programs together in one bill is a great way to pass both with a minimum of debate and controversy.”
Johnson is right about controversy until he made an issue of it.
Most criticism about the farm bill is centered on costly payments to people (many non-farmers) to idle land, limit crops and livestock or other special programs.
Urban members of Congress have no qualm about that controversy because their constituents do not share in the payoff. Taking food out of their mouths is certainly a different issue.
The cost for U.S. Department of Agriculture farm-related programs is about $20 billion out of the $100 billion a year budget. Food stamps account for $80 billion.
Congress never does anything in a small way. It can’t pass a budget for one year, so it debated a 10-year plan doomed to fail. The defeated bill spent $800 billion on food stamps over 10 years.
I doubt Johnson is correct why food stamps are part of the ag budget.
Feeding the poor and hungry has been part of the USDA budget dating back to the Great Depression. The Commodity Credit Corporation Charter Act in 1933 was to get loans to farmers until non-perishable commodities prices rose. In 1935, the act was modified to purchase surplus commodities from farmers and provided the basis for donating them to people through federal domestic commodity programs.
The program was amended several times through the years, each time increasing eligibility and products available to recipients.
In 1961, President Kennedy by executive order increased the quantity and variety of foods donated for needy households – shifting emphasis from surplus disposal to providing nutritious foods.
Getting those products to consumer was a problem for those in the middle – county welfare departments – who certified participants.
New London entrepreneur Ted Thomas provided a solution.
Many New London old timers remember black and white school buses as a common sight in the city. These buses were owned by United Counties Distributors, Thomas’ business, which distributed surplus commodities to residents in nine area counties – including Waupaca, Outagamie, Shawano and Waushara.
UCD acted as ordering, storage and delivering agent for the counties. Each county, similar to the current food stamp program, determined eligibility and what products were available.
Following are excerpts in a March 30, 1969, story I wrote for The Post-Crescent:
“One Waupaca County family of nine, not unusual, but above the average number participating in the program, received 13 pounds of butter, 8 pounds of lard, 10 pounds of cheese, 9 cans of chopped meat, 18 pounds of dried beans, 50 pounds of white flour, 10 pounds of whole wheat flour, 10 pounds of rice, 15 pounds of corn meal, 5 pounds of dry peas, four 4 1/2 -pound cartons of dry milk, 18 cans of evaporated milk, 6 pounds of peanut butter, 6 equivalent-dozen dried eggs, 9 pounds rolled oats, 9 cans of canned pork, 4 pounds of bulgar, 9 bottles of corn syrup, 6 pounds of dried prunes, 5 pounds of potato flakes, 9 cans of tomato juice and 9 cans of peas.”
“Cost to the county was one penny a pound . Estimated over the counter value of the items listed above was $87 in March 1969.”
In his annual report, Robert Payette, county welfare director, said 246,763 pounds of food was distributed in Waupaca County from Oct, 1, 1964 to Sept. 30, 1965. Cost of distribution was $7,142.73 to an average 1,209 people a month.
USDA changed its support program over the years – no doubt in response to the issues of handling and storing surplus commodities.
Of particular concern was storing a glut of dry milk which depressed the world milk market.
There was little criticism of the commodities safety net, because the participants were getting actual food products and not multi-colored stamps to be redeemed at a store. Physical issues associated with the commodities program made food stamps an attractive option to officials especially in the 1950s and 1960s.
Those decades saw a change in how relief was changed from the local municipality to the county and eventually with most of the decisions being made at the state and federal level.
Wisconsin’s Legislature was still a representative, part-time position that maintained a bottom up philosophy. With the full-time Legislature it became a top down driven government.
The one constant between the commodity and food stamp program is that the county determines participation and benefits to recipients.
A single mother of three said she gets just over $600 a month in food stamps. Another mother of three is getting just under $600 as her income increased slightly.
One-in-seven Americans a month, nearly 45 million people, received food stamp benefits in 2011.
Following past practice, Congress will probably vote to extend the current farm bill that expires Sept. 30.
We have come full circle. Now we have full-time politicians doing part-time work.