VIEW FROM THE HILL

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN PAUL PENNER
Of all the nations in the world, the United States has one of the lowest per-capita food costs. I cannot imagine why anyone in this nation would want to change that.

We have a “new” president leading our country-in more ways than one. The elections are over. President George W. Bush is approaching 60 days into his second term, and he has already declared war-not on another country, but on domestic programs.

The reasons for Bush’s change in behavior may be many. However, the primary reason is the high cost of continuing the war in Iraq and Afghanistan-which is running around a billion dollars a week-not to mention the war on terror and homeland security.

I cannot imagine anyone at this time advocating we withdraw from Iraq or Afghanistan while we are still slugging it out, where terrorists threaten to throw the entire region into another bloodbath.

At the same time, I cannot imagine anyone would suggest we gut important domestic programs that are as vital to the welfare of our nation as protecting our nation from terrorist threats.

A safe, secure, reasonably priced and adequate food supply is important to our nation’s well-being. If you doubt that, look in countries currently struggling with civil war and genocide, like the Sudan. Even countries of the former Soviet Union struggle to feed their own people.

This insanity defies all logic, especially when the tragedy is completely avoidable.

I am not suggesting we will experience anything like these other countries if President Bush gets his way by slashing farm programs. I am suggesting we would be making a fundamental shift in food policy. Once we change course it is difficult, if not impossible, to change it back.

I have no doubt that we need to make some changes within the farm program. Some proponents of change suggest we need to look at reducing or eliminating subsidy payments to large farms.

President Bush wants to go further than that by reducing all subsidies to all farmers, regardless of size.

What’s wrong with that? Bush wants farmers to rely on world market prices for their sole income source. If that were to happen, farmers would be the only segment of the U.S. industrial sector to achieve independence from Uncle Sam’s money machine.

Is the change possible? Yes. Are we able to absorb the financial shock in our communities? Probably not.

Before answering the question, perhaps we should address what we can absorb and still prosper. We can absorb any financial impact. As a rural community, we may not want to merely survive in a mortally wounded condition, however.

The greatest portion of the U.S. budget goes to other programs, such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, national defense, interest and non-defense discretionary programs.

In contrast, the entire budget of the farm bill is barely on the radar screen.

For a clearer picture, I downloaded a fact sheet provided by an individual from the National Association of Wheat Growers titled “U.S. Farm Policy, 2002: A comparison of the cost to other budget programs.”

The numbers are based on the U.S. House of Representatives Agriculture Committee publication title “The Facts on U.S. Farm Policy.”

Though the data is two years old, it still has relevance for today. If we plugged in the tremendous costs of the war on terror, the contrast would be even greater.

The numbers shown are the per-person, per-day cost in each category:

— Total 2002 U.S. Budget: 100 percent, $23.45.

— Social Security: 23.4 percent, $5.39.

— Non-defense discretionary: 19 percent, $4.46.

— Medicare/Medicaid: 19 percent, $4.46.

— Defense: 16 percent, $3.75.

— Net interest: 10 percent, $2.34.

— Other mandatory: 6 percent, $1.41;

— Entitlements: 6 percent, $1.41.

— Farm bill total: 0.56 percent, $0.13.

Below is a breakdown of the entire Farm Bill from the same year. Contrary to some claims promoted in the national media, not all funds designated in this bill goes toward “padding the pockets of farmers.” Again, cost is shown on a per-person, per-day amount:

— Nutrition (food stamps, WIC, school lunches, meals for the elderly) 55 percent, $0.0725.

— Commodity support (farm payments): 25.6 percent, $0.0370.

— Conservation: 8.4 percent, $0.0110.

— Crop insurance: 7.7 percent, $0.0101.

— Food aid: 1.1 percent, $0.0014.

— Forestry: 1.2 percent, $0.0016.

— Agricultural research, 0.3 percent, $0.0004.

— Rural Development, 0.3 percent, $0.0004

— Other: 0.6 percent, $0.0008.

Obviously, only an evil-minded scrooge would suggest cutting the nutrition portion of the farm bill. That is not going to happen. Why? Children have parents who vote. Not to mention that a greater majority of the elderly go to the polls than any other age group.

When combined, these groups far outnumber the voting farm block.

Equally obvious, the savings achieved from cutting farm program payments are miniscule, no matter how you slice the numbers.

The question is, then: What is the motivation behind President Bush’s move to cut farm programs?

The jury is still out on that. Perhaps we will not know until he leaves office.

Remember this: he made no campaign promises to agriculture. He did not need to spend political capital to win us over. Most of us were already on his side.

In the meantime, for those who live in rural communities and benefit from agriculture’s bounty, it is time to let your elected representatives in Washington know how you feel. They will listen to you. You have the power of the vote.

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