A Time to Speak – Farm bill should serve the common good

Father Patrick Delahanty

Every five years Congress faces the daunting task of passing legislation known as the Farm Bill. This sweeping piece of lawmaking escapes the notice of most Americans who do not realize how it affects their lives and the lives of our sisters and brothers throughout the world.

No one questions that food is a basic need and a fundamental human right. For this reason, the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and its staff pay close attention to the provisions in the bill that relate to “the needs of the most vulnerable and hungry people, and farmers and families at home and abroad.”

Separate bills have passed each chamber of Congress and a conference committee is now cobbling together a final version of the bill to send back to the Senate and the House for final passage and delivery to the president’s desk before the end of the government’s fiscal year, Sept. 30.

In addition to USCCB, Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Charities USA, Catholic Rural Life and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul are also examining its provisions and commenting on them. In a joint letter to the Farm Bill Conference Committee dated Aug. 30 representatives of these organizations say the bill is a chance to demonstrate “solidarity with poor and hungry people” worldwide, to support “struggling family farmers and ranchers,” to encourage “sustainable stewardship of the land” and to help “vulnerable rural communities.”

They write, “We call upon you to craft a final agreement that lifts up human dignity and serves the common good of all.”

In at least one important measure of the bill, the common good could be threatened if the House provisions are adopted and not the Senate’s. This would have a devastating impact on thousands of Kentuckians who depend on food stamps to feed their families.

Right now, 15 percent of Kentuckians, over 600,000 persons, use the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to put food on the table.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that in Kentucky more than 69 percent of SNAP participants are in families with children; almost 36% are in families with members who are elderly or have disabilities, and more than 34 percent are in working families.

SNAP is one of the country’s most effective anti-hunger programs. Despite providing very modest benefits — averaging between $1.30 and $1.40 per person per meal — the program has provided families food security, brought many out of poverty and has had long-term positive impacts on health and on children’s educational attainment.

The Senate version of the Farm Bill builds on the success of the program. If passed, people will have a wider array of SNAP training programs for employment, especially in rural communities where there are limited options. It also allows for local input on workforce training programs and the use of case-management to build programs tailored to the needs of individuals and their communities.

The House version, with its funding cut of $19 billion, would cause more than a million low-income households with more than two million people — particularly low-income working families with children — to lose their benefits altogether or have them reduced. It would also impose changes to eligibility, enhanced excessive work requirements and the denial of benefits to persons who have already served their sentences for certain crimes.

Kentucky has two elected officials on the Farm Bill Conference Committee: Senator Mitch McConnell and Rep. Jamie Comer. Hopefully, they both recognize that the only way this legislation “lifts-up human dignity and serves the common good of all,” would be to include the Senate’s provisions regarding the SNAP program in its final draft and not that of the House.

Father Patrick Delahanty

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