Economy

Richest Nation On Earth Can’t Afford Tiny Program To Feed Poor Kids, Congressman Says

CREDIT: Paul Morigi / AP Images for National Association of Drug Court Professionals

Congressman Robert Aderholt (R-AL), left, meeting with actor Matthew Perry in 2013.

After pilot programs significantly reduced child hunger in select states over the past few years, the White House wants to expand low-income students’ access to food assistance during the summer.

But there’s a Republican congressman standing in the way.

At a hearing on Wednesday focusing on agriculture program spending in fiscal year 2017, Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL) acknowledged the summer food assistance program had bipartisan support. But he argued the White House’s proposal to offer assistance to hungry kids is simply too expensive.

“The administration knows their proposal to expand this program to the tune of $12 billion over 10 years is simply not feasible in this budget climate and through the annual appropriations process,” Aderholt said.

The summer food benefits program is designed to fill a food gap for children who rely on free- and reduced-price school meals for much of their nutrition. After small pilot programs in a handful of states over the past four years, administrators are confident that even a $45 monthly benefit during the summer months can reduce severe food insecurity among low-income children by 30 percent. A nationwide program would benefit 20 million children each summer once fully operational, according to White House estimates.

READ MORE: How The Tens Of Millions Of Kids Who Rely On School For Food Get Fed During Summer Break

Taking that idea nationwide would add just 0.02 percent to total federal spending over the coming decade, the Center for Economic and Policy Research told ThinkProgress. “It was hard to find many programs that spent so little” across the full budget, the group said in an email.

It’s also much cheaper than other agricultural programs that Aderholt supports.

The federal crop insurance program is projected to spend $89.8 billion over 10 years after changes in the 2014 Farm Bill made it more generous. Aderholt voted both for the final version of that law and an earlier House GOP version that would have spent even more on crop insurance.

The boosts to crop insurance that Aderholt supported came alongside a full repeal of the traditional direct-payments farm program. That error-riddled system was so expensive that repealing it more than covered the costs of enhancing the insurance and price supports systems.

But if Aderholt is willing to support spending projects so long as they’re offset by cuts elsewhere, it would not be hard to come up with $1.2 billion in annual savings to cover the cost of expanding summer food subsidies. Lawmakers found twice that much to pay for increased funding for medical research last May. Shifting how government subsidizes homeownership through the tax code to make that benefit more targeted to those who need it would save $24 billion each year.

Adding to the absurdity: Letting kids go hungry is actually much more expensive than the program Aderholt doesn’t want to fund. Child hunger damages a child’s educational, health, and behavioral outcomes, raising the odds that a low-income kid will become a high-cost adult.

Meanwhile, the farm programs Aderholt supports are a runaway gravy train. Even some conservatives criticize the systems for enriching corporate landowners and insurers under the guise of protecting family farms from risk.

Crop insurance sounds like something that covers outright losses, protecting a farmer from profit-less years. But crop insurance can pay even when a farm is in the black. The heavily-subsidized insurance policies farmers and agribusinesses sign are premised upon a certain forecast of market prices and agricultural yields. If yield or prices fall below that projection, the policy pays out — even if the ultimate revenue from the crop was still “enough to cover expenses and keep the farm profitable and financially secure,” the Environmental Working Group (EWG) noted in a recent report on the program’s outcomes from 2000-2014.

While not every individual farm owner sees a positive return every single year, the vast majority do. The national average return to farmers never went into the red in the 14 years EWG studied. In 2007, the “worst” year researchers found for farmers in terms of crop insurance payouts, farmers got $1.29 back on average for every dollar of premiums they paid. Drought-stricken 2012 saw an average return of $4.24 on the dollar for farmers.

The taxpayer-backed insurance system is also a boon to Wall Street firms that sell the policies. Those 18 firms banked a total profit of $10 billion from the system from 2003-2013 and have only taken losses from it in two of the past 20 years.

Another Farm Bill program Aderholt supports revamped a system called “price supports” that issues payments when certain crops fall below a target price. The system lets the government encourage certain crops by promising to protect growers if prices dive after planting season. But the last Farm Bill set price targets at 115 percent of the previous year’s prices for exotic crops like sushi rice, effectively guaranteeing a significant bump in profits for those crops.

During deliberations over the Farm Bill, Aderholt supported a House GOP version that would have cut tens of billions of dollars from food stamps. “I wish that poor people would be treated as well as sushi rice in this farm bill, but they are not,” fellow Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) said at the time.

Aderholt’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment about his fiscal argument against the summer food benefits program.