The farm bill is dead.
Members of the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday voted 234-195 against a half-trillion-dollar farm bill that would have cut $2 billion annually from the $80 billion-a-year Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which has doubled in the past five years.
The bill also would have let states impose broad new work requirements on those who receive SNAP benefits, formerly known as food stamps.
“Because this bill didn’t pass, food stamp abuse can continue,” said Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Hazleton, who voted in favor of the measure. “Because the bill didn’t pass, consumers will suffer and farmers will face further uncertainty.”
“Agriculture is the number one industry in Pennsylvania and is a major employer and source of important commodities and products. This bill would have fought against fraud in the food stamp program by, among other things, eliminating food stamp benefits for illegal immigrants while strengthening the program for those who need it,” Barletta said, slamming its defeat as “an endorsement for the status quo.”
However, 62 members of Barletta’s own party were among those who voted against against the bill — with many Republicans arguing that the proposed cuts didn’t go deep enough — while 24 Democrats voted in favor.
Among the region’s congressional delegation, Rep. Tom Marino, R-Lycoming Twp., voted for the bill, while Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Moosic, voted against it.
“While the Farm Bill had many provisions that would have streamlined and improved our nation’s agriculture policy, I could not vote in favor of a $20 billion cut to the SNAP Program,” Cartwright said, referring to the total reduction planned over 10 years.
“These drastic cuts would have resulted in 2 million of the nation’s poorest being kicked off of the program, left more than 210,000 children without school breakfast or lunch, and pushed more families into poverty,” Cartwright added. “That is amoral and not the American way.”
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., argued the bill was necessary to avoid farm crises of the past and that it contained some of the biggest reforms in years. “If it fails today I can’t guarantee you’ll see in this Congress another attempt,” he said before the vote.
The Senate overwhelmingly passed its version of the farm bill last week, with about $2.4 billion a year in overall cuts and a $400 million annual decrease in food stamps — one-fifth of the House bill’s food stamp cuts. If the two chambers cannot come together on a bill, farm-state lawmakers are likely to push for an extension of the 2008 farm bill that expires in September.
SNAP’s local economic impact
Cartwright also expressed fears about how reduced SNAP funding could impact the economy once those aid dollars were no longer being spent at food stores in Pennsylvania and across the country. He cited research by Moody’s Analytics estimating that every $1 increase in SNAP benefits can generate about $1.70 in economic activity in an ailing economy.
The operators of two area supermarket chains understand that concept all too well.
“It definitely affects us,” said Jeff Krenitsky, who owns a convenience store and three supermarkets, including Quinn’s Market in Pittston.
On an average day, Quinn’s might see between $1,000 and $3,000 worth of food-stamp sales, but that can jump to between $8,100 and $8,900 when the bi-weekly SNAP disbursements reach recipients. As well, Krenitsky said the stores commonly bring in more staff to handle the increased patronage after SNAP payments go out.
Joe Fasula, co-owner of Gerrity’s and its nine markets in Lackawanna and Luzerne counties, said the bi-weekly food-stamp bump can vary from store to store, but may be as much as 1o percent, which could mean an extra $25,000 to $50,000, depending on location.
At the Save-A-Lot store on South Main Street in Wilkes-Barre, a discount grocery which opened last fall and which is operated by Fasula and his family, there are times when half of all business comes from SNAP customers, he said.
“It’s hard to know what the right answer is,” Fasula said when asked about his views on the farm bill and proposed SNAP cuts. “Certainly, there would be an impact on the grocery business, but to me it is most important to look at what is best for the country and what is best for the people in need.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.