Three Steps to Protect Food Stamps from a Cruel Congress
As expected, the House version of the 2012 farm bill contains deep cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly called food stamps). With its $16 billion proposed cut in this critical safety net, the House leadership is about three times as cruel as the Senate, which already approved a $4.5 billion reduction over 10 years. If the House gets its way, two to three million Americans could go hungry. In addition, 280,000 kids could get kicked off the school meal program because their families’ eligibility is tied to SNAP. And speaking of kids, almost half of all SNAP participants are children.
Of course it doesn’t have to be this way. Congress has plenty of options for saving money, it’s just easier to reduce the deficit on the backs of poor people. The Environmental Working Group summed it up succinctly: “the bill would give unlimited taxpayer dollars to farmers who are already enjoying record profits and less support to hungry kids who depend on federal assistance.”
While many groups (and politicians) are organizing to try and stop the bleeding, they are missing several key talking points and strategies that could help save the program. Here are just three ideas, which stem from the recommendations in my recent report, Food Stamps, Follow the Money: Are Corporations Profiting from Hungry Americans? As a bonus, each offers a bi-partisan approach to increasing accountability in what has become a massive government program vulnerable to criticism.
1. Increase transparency. Currently, we know very little about where more than $70 billion a year in taxpayer money is going. The federal government does not require collection of data on how much SNAP money is spent, for example, on soda versus milk, or cookies versus carrots. As I learned from the media coverage of my report, this is a huge concern of folks across the political spectrum. (See for example, this article in the conservative Washington Times.) While some advocates fear that making such data public will only lead to more criticism, the current policy of secrecy is not doing the program much good either. (See Raj Patel’s post, “We Know More About Who Makes Our Bombs than Who Feeds Our Kids.”) Moreover, we need such data to properly evaluate the program, make improvements and ferret out all the alleged “waste, fraud and abuse.”
2. Allow states to experiment. It’s abundantly clear that many Americans (also regardless of political affiliation) are unhappy with current policy that allows SNAP participants to purchase junk food. See for example, the comments on this San Francisco Chronicle cover story. (While it’s painful to read some of the harsher comments, we cannot ignore this backlash.) One way to fix this problem is for the feds to let states with worthy proposals evaluate different approaches to SNAP purchase policy, such as not allowing soft drinks and other unhealthy products. Given that nine states have attempted to pass bills to try to improve SNAP, (all failed thanks to a combined lobbying effort by the food industry and anti-hunger groups, which also stopped New York City’s high-profile attempt) why not give the idea a chance?
3. Starve banks, not children. As my research found, large banks and other financial institutions play a middleman role in SNAP by contracting with states to administer funds via EBT (electronic benefits transfer) and approve retail transactions. For example, JPMorgan Chase currently has contracts in half the states, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. (Again, there is no national accounting so it could be more.) These funds are paid for by both federal and state taxpayer dollars. So how about it, Congress, before taking food out of hungry children’s mouths, maybe you could ask JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon if he wouldn’t mind shaving a little off of his profits instead?
Last December, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) proposed the FRESH Act, which would have accomplished (among other policies) numbers 1 and 2 above. Perhaps during the bill mark-up and floor debate, some brave House member will bring those ideas back into the conversation. Increasing transparency and making improvements to SNAP can only strengthen the program and maybe even reduce the cruelest cuts. It’s worth a shot.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
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The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.