Is the safety net too wide?

Published 8:41 pm Tuesday, June 18, 2024

By John Nelson


I still live on the farm where I was born, and though it’s not currently an active farm, I like to keep up with agricultural news.  And lately, the hot topic is the debate in the U.S. Congress over the details of the 2024 Farm Bill.  The pressure is now on to reach an agreement by the end of September when the current bill expires.

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It’s a complex piece of legislation that touches on several issues of importance, but the main stumbling block holding up its final preparation is the disagreement over the implementation of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

For some background information, the nation’s first farm bill in 1933 was a part of President F. D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.  Nutrition for the needy was added as the Food Stamp Act  of 1964 under President Lindon B. Johnson, and after various modifications, we now have the present SNAP version that accounts for 80 percent of the Farm Bill’s budget.  One could say that the main focus has shifted from food production to food consumption.

A column by Sid Salter that appeared in the Panolian last month identified the congressional leaders in the forefront of the debate.

Glen Thompson, a Republican from Pennsylvania who chairs the House Agricultural Committee, voices the conservative view that Federal spending will never be brought under control unless the fraud and abuse in such programs as SNAP is addressed.  Thus he has proposed a freeze on the system that adjusts SNAP benefits to current food costs.

Senator Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat from Michigan and chair of the Senate Agricultural Committee, has declared Thompson’s freeze proposal a way to cut benefits to needy recipients. According to Farm Bill summaries released from her office, the improving economy will result in fewer people requiring SNAP assistance.

It’s difficult to believe that an expanding economy will rein in SNAP costs when one looks at facts presented by Salter.  His column informed readers that on the national level, the program has ballooned from 17 million people receiving $17 billion dollars in 2000 to 41.2 million receiving $119.5 billion last year – a period during which the nation’s Gross Domestic Product was on the rise.

Thoughts about government assistance programs and how they might be affecting out state led me to reread a column by Lt. Governor Delbert Hosemann that appeared in this paper back in January.

Hosemann gave an encouraging report on what the future of Mississippi could be and credited state political leaders with making efforts to bring business and industry into our state.  Success in that endeavor led him to write that, “Every person who wants a job can find one in Mississippi.”

The drop in the state’s unemployment to 3.3 percent seems to support his statement, but one must remember that that statistic is based on those actually seeking employment.

A more ominous statistic presented by Houseman was that our labor force participation rate has dropped to 53.8 percent.  This rate has been dropping nationwide, but Mississippi is almost 9 points below the national average.

That fact prompted Houseman to issue the warning that, “As we near the 50 percent mark however, where almost half of our population is supporting the other half, we approach a dangerous precipice.”

Providing government assistance to those truly requiring help without enabling those lacking personal responsibility to remain idle requires considerable oversight.  Statistics indicate that a better job of monitoring is required.

John Nelson may be reached at