Thursday, January 19, 2017

American Enterprise Institute (AEI) report on poverty, hunger, and U.S. agricultural policy

In a new report for the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), Dan Sumner, Joe Glauber, and I consider all the different ways that farm programs could affect prices or incomes, which in turn could affect poverty and nutrition for low-income Americans. We conclude:
Despite occasional claims to the contrary, farm subsidy programs have little impact on food consumption, food security, or nutrition in the United States.
It might surprise you to hear that this is a widely held view among researchers and policy analysts in agricultural economics. Interestingly, it depends little on a person's political ideology.

Strongly market-oriented economists tend to describe farm subsidy programs as an ineffective use of tax dollars. Ryan Nabil and Vincent Smith write this week in Inside Sources:
There is no poverty and nutrition alleviation rationale for U.S. farm subsidies because they do not have any meaningful effects on poverty. These programs simply transfer government monies mostly to well-off folks who can afford competent lobbyists but are in no need of government handouts.
At the same time, the Environmental Working Group writes this week:
Last fall, an EWG investigation debunked the agriculture industry’s claims that American farms “feed the world.” In fact, fewer than 1 percent of U.S. exports go toward feeding the hungriest nations.
Now, a study by three leading experts shows that federal farm subsidy programs such as crop insurance don’t help feed hungry Americans either.
An analysis by Joseph Glauber, Daniel Sumner and Parke Wilde for the American Enterprise Institute confirms that farm subsidies don’t improve food security for poor Americans – even for those who live in farm country.
Before reaching our conclusions, Joe, Dan, and I tried to contemplate a wide array of ways that somebody could say farm programs help the nutrition status of the poor in the United States. For example, perhaps the programs lower prices of beneficial foods (but they don't), or perhaps they help the income of poor farmers (but they go mostly to more prosperous farmers), or perhaps they help farm workers by increasing labor demand in certain industries (but the least labor-intensive industries get more subsidies).

In a spirit of open communication across diverse traditions, especially this particular week, I look forward to participating in the AEI event this Monday, Jan 23, connected with the release of this report.

Monday, January 16, 2017

A more constructive approach to SSB restrictions in SNAP

An old debate

First, let me review the harsh back and forth in a somewhat typical week of debate about sugar sweetened beverages (SSBs) in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

The New York Times this week published an article about "lots of soda" in the shopping carts of SNAP participants.

This drew fire from the magazine Jacobin ("Reason in Revolt"), where Joe Soss noted several problems with the NYT article. For example, the NYT listed "milk" first among beverage choices for nonparticipant households, but the original USDA study (.pdf) showed no significant difference in the ranking of food choices for participants and nonparticipants.

The NYT reporter, Anahad O'Connor, said "cities, states, and medical groups" have urged changes to SNAP, such as restricting soda purchases. Meanwhile, O'Connor said, industry organizations have spent millions opposing the changes, so USDA has refused to approve the proposals.

One would think from the NYT article that all the good folks favor the restrictions, and all the bad folks oppose. O'Connor didn't say that the list of supporters for such proposals also includes conservative critics of SNAP, who sometimes include such proposals in an agenda that also has budget cuts, nor that the list of opponents includes anti-hunger organizations, who are concerned that the proposals would increase program stigma and food insecurity by discouraging participation among eligible people.

In truth, people who care about poverty, hunger, and health are painfully divided about SNAP restrictions.

A more promising discussion

Second, let's consider a different approach to this policy discussion.

I have a wish that leading anti-hunger organizations would more sympathetically consider supporting a pilot project that includes SNAP restrictions.

Here is a draft set of principles, which, if met, might make such a proposal deserving of support by anti-hunger organizations, legislators who care about food security, and the USDA.
  1. the policy to be piloted places a high value on both nutrition and food security, combining a policy of interest for public health nutrition goals (the SSB restriction) with policies of interest for food security goals (such as enhanced benefits for some participants who currently receive too little);
  2. the pilot is a true pilot (pilot scale, with genuine empirical curiosity about the outcome, and no assumptions in advance that the outcome will be favorable);
  3. the outcomes for the study include reduced SSB consumption (intended outcome) and questions about perceived stigma and SNAP participation (possible unintended outcomes);
  4. the pilot policy does not have other food choice restrictions beyond the SSB restriction (no hints at more broadly paternalistic plans to convert SNAP into WIC); and
  5. the research protocol has a trigger, enforced by the Institutional Review Board (IRB), ending the pilot in the event of any evidence that the pilot proposal threatens household food security.
I wish such a pilot SSB restriction were not caught up in our poisoned partisan struggle over the safety net more broadly. This is merely a small reasonable revision of the definition of SNAP eligible foods to exclude soda. It is not about "banning" soda, just about altering what can be purchased with SNAP benefits. If the proposed policy turns out to threaten food security, almost everybody in the public health nutrition community would drop their interest in it. And, if the proposal turns out to be successful, and perhaps even popular with SNAP participants themselves -- who may appreciate the health halo associated with the revised program -- then it may merit support within the anti-hunger advocacy community.

Update (Jan 19): A clear and empathetic essay from Marlene Schwartz at the Rudd Center published yesterday in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

MLK Day reflection: 8 places I love in Georgia's 5th Congressional District

Today, Martin Luther King Day 2017, feels like a good day to list some of my favorite places in Rep. John Lewis' 5th Congressional District in Georgia, from a visit one year ago, in January, 2016, which I will long remember:
  1. Emory University, where I learned about local food initiatives at the Wholesome Wave annual summit;
  2. the Eastside Trail, where a fun bike ride showed that Atlanta is capable of sustainable alternative transportation, beyond its car-centric reputation, for those who seek it;
  3. the Antioch Baptist Church North, full to the rafters with holy music and powerful Word, and totally welcoming to a (white) Christian visitor from out of town and (of all things) his Jewish friends who joined him for the church service out of ecumenical interest;
  4. the Center for Civil and Human Rights, which hosts the single most dramatic experiential exhibit I have ever witnessed, in which the visitor sits down at a lunch counter and puts on earphones (and to even say what happens next would be a spoiler);
  5. the Atlanta History Center, famous for Civil War memorabilia and the Margaret Mitchell house, but which also was packed with Hispanic visitors on the day I visited, because of a special program for Día de los Reyes Magos.
  6. the World of Coca-Cola, a museum dedicated to proving that any product, no matter how empty of nourishment, can be converted by a sufficiently bold and brilliant huckster into the subject of an advertisement so moving that it brings tears to the eyes of the most hardened food policy analyst;
  7. the Martin Luther King memorial and gravesite, because even young nations such as ours deserve a pilgrimage destination; and
  8. the Amtrak Station, because though I am flying less, our divided country fortunately is still bound together by old rusty infrastructure links that predate our current disregard for the environmental challenges of our times.
I will try to live the next four years with one foot in our democracy's painful contemporary struggles and the other foot planted in the better America that sometimes is hidden in plain sight. This is how I will try simultaneously to do good and enjoy life. Some may slander this good and profoundly American place, but the 5th Congressional District in Georgia has something to teach us. 

Thursday, December 22, 2016

A consistent policy toward drug testing for recipients of USDA benefits

Governor Scott Walker (R-WI) this week urged President-elect Donald Trump to allow Wisconsin to implement drug testing for participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the nation's leading anti-hunger program and the largest program in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

One could argue that this is a bad idea, because people in the grips of substance addictions can be as poor and hungry as anybody else. Moreover, SNAP is a household benefit, so it is not clear how benefit cuts based on one person's drug test would affect innocent children and other relatives in the same family. Remedies other than taking away their food may be the most humane approach to this social problem.

Alternatively, if the incoming administration values drug testing, we can all agree that any drug testing for recipients of USDA funding should be consistent and fair across the board. One could imagine:
  1. Drug testing for SNAP participants. In other social safety net programs, evidence suggests that millions of dollars can be wasted chasing very few positives. But, this was Governor Walker's proposal, so it stays on the list.
  2. Drug testing for participants in farm subsidy programs. A 2011 study reported: "Current alcohol use, smokeless tobacco use, inhalant use, and other illicit drug use were more prevalent among high school-aged youths living on farms than among those living in towns." To be consistent with the household character of the SNAP drug tests, the testing would certainly include teenagers in the farm families. The Environmental Working Group shows 1995-2014 USDA payments to Wisconsin farmers of $7.6 billion. Surely, only a small fraction of this sum is spent on illegal drugs, but even a small fraction can add up.
One suspects that this consistent drug testing policy would find less support in the U.S. Congress. 

If Governor Walker's proposal fails to gain traction, perhaps Congress will then turn to more imaginative ways of reducing despair and hopelessness, and increasing prosperity and food security, for all recipients of USDA funding.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The nutrition title in the next farm bill

Choices Magazine, a publication of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association (AAEA), has my new commentary: "The Nutrition Title’s Long, Sometimes Strained, but Not Yet Broken, Marriage with the Farm Bill."

It describes the divergent budgetary forecasts for two major safety net programs, with falling spending for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and rising spending for the much larger Medicaid program.

Source: Author’s computations based on Congressional Budget Office (CBO), 2016.
Note: SNAP is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

There are two different conclusions that lawmakers could draw from these trends:
On the one hand, as they plan the next farm bill, legislators may accept falling SNAP costs and rising Medicaid costs, on grounds that the funding lost from SNAP still is going toward another important safety net program. On the other hand, legislators could reason that preventing poor nutrition and chronic disease makes more sense than treatment after the fact. From the latter perspective, providing extra resources for SNAP to address unhealthy eating and diet-related chronic disease may be a worthwhile investment if it slows the growth of Medicaid costs.
What will happen next? We can only guess.
In most past cycles, congressional debate over the farm bill was comparatively less partisan than debate over other legislation. This changed in the 2014 farm bill, as legislators concerned about the federal budget deficit challenged the traditional bipartisan support for farm programs, and criticism of SNAP had a more partisan character than usual. To reduce partisan tensions over this issue, Congress established a national commission on hunger in the 2014 omnibus appropriations bill. The commission’s final report was released in January, 2016 (National Commission on Hunger, 2015). The report places substantial emphasis on employment and training programs and requirements, and it proposes to exclude a narrowly defined class of sugar-sweetened beverages from SNAP eligibility, which is a provision likely to be opposed by SNAP’s supporters in anti-hunger organizations. At the same time, the report describes SNAP’s overall success in reducing the rates of household food insecurity and hunger in the United States.
In the next farm bill, it is uncertain whether to expect a renewal of the rancorous and partisan argument over the nutrition title. The commission’s report may serve as a roadmap for a less divisive nutrition title, if lawmakers seek such a thing.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

The scale of SNAP (food stamp) spending relative to other budget priorities

Multiple social media friends recently shared a fall 2015 chart from an organization called "The Other 98%" (slogans: "kicking corporate asses for the working classes" and "we didn't start the class war, but we're going to end it").

I like the chart's implied message. In my own words: "The United States should seek to advance peace, reduce military spending, pursue economic justice, and support programs that promote food security."

But, the chart badly botches the details, showing SNAP (food stamp) spending as a minuscule portion of federal spending, "somewhere within the tiny orange sliver at the bottom," less than 1% of federal spending, and therefore less than 1/57th as large as the military budget that takes most of the pie.

In a democracy, we don't all need to be budget experts, but I highly recommend that every voter take just the 10 minutes needed to understand some basics about the federal budget. I like the clear "Federal Budget 101" provided by the National Priorities Project. Here are 4 items from that website that help in interpreting the chart above.

1. The total budget was about $3.8 trillion in 2015. Military spending was $598 billion (16% of the total). SNAP spending (part of "everything else") was $74 billion (2% of the total). Therefore, SNAP spending is 1/8th as large as military spending.

2. Federal spending can be divided into "mandatory spending" (65%, including SNAP and many other programs whose annual spending follows rules that were decided when the program was authorized) and "discretionary spending" (29%, including military spending and many other programs whose annual spending is mainly decided by appropriations each year).

3. Military spending is a large part of discretionary spending (which, in turn, is 29% of the total budget). The Other 98%'s chart shows discretionary spending -- as noted in the text underneath the Facebook post above. It agrees closely with the numbers from the National Priorities Project. However, The Other 98% is wrong to say that the small "Food and Agriculture" slice contains SNAP.

4. Social security and medical costs make up a large fraction of mandatory spending (which, in turn, is 65% of the total budget). SNAP ($74 billion) and mandatory farm subsidy programs are both included within the yellow food and agriculture slice ($122.6 billion) of this chart -- not the food and agriculture slice of the preceding discretionary chart.

To summarize, the military budget ($598 billion) is about 8 times as big as the SNAP or food stamp budget ($74 billion). For many readers, there never was any reason for the original Facebook post to indulge in misrepresentation, confusion, or error. These accurate numbers would have been sufficient to motivate the main rhetorical argument: "The United States will be better off if we pursue peace, reduce military spending, promote justice, and ensure enough food for all people in our community."

I hope this time was useful to you in a small way (to understand a quibble with the Facebook post) and a big way (to comprehend the broad outlines of how our government spends our money).

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Some in Massachusetts are concerned with animal welfare and yet not voting for Ballot Measure #3

In a commentary for WBUR this week, my faculty colleagues Will Masters and Jennifer Hashley write about Massachusetts Ballot Measure #3, which would ban the sale in Massachusetts of eggs, pork, and veal from confined production methods.

This debate is commonly described as a tension between animal welfare goals and protecting poor people from higher prices. Masters and Hashley actually speak favorably about the animal welfare goals, and even say that in principle more humane production practices could be accomplished at reasonable cost (assuming the right supports), but they say in practice the Massachusetts initiative generates too much concern about higher prices right now.

They write:
The more we understand Ballot Question 3, the more vexing the choice appears. From our long experience with U.S. agriculture and food policy, we know that America’s diverse and resilient farms could potentially deliver improved animal welfare without harming access to low-cost, convenient and nutritious eggs. But we also know that this won’t happen automatically. If government remains on the sidelines, a yes vote on Question 3 would bring unacceptable price rises.