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March 1, 2014

In Our Opinion: Imperfect Farm Bill better than none at all

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The Daily Star

---- — “As with any compromise, the Farm Bill isn’t perfect.”

So said President Barack Obama on Feb. 4 when he signed a bill that was four years in the making into law. And while we agree that the bill isn’t perfect, we’re awfully glad to see one finally get passed. 

The headline out of this year’s bill was the spending cuts, most of which came from two sources. 

Conservatives in Congress dug in their heels over the amount of money allocated for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and the bill Obama signed included about $8 billion in cuts from the SNAP (food stamps) budget. 

The savings are supposed to come from some belt-tightening that will cut waste and eliminate fraud. But about 4 percent of SNAP recipients will see their benefits drop by about $90 per month right away. Sheena Wright, the president of the United Way in New York, called these cuts “devastating.” 

We’ve said before that cutting benefits to the most needy Americans is a lousy way to trim government spending. But it has been clear for a long time that this bill would never pass the conservative House of Representatives without some SNAP cuts. We’re just glad they are only going to affect a small fraction of the people who depend on this program to put food on their tables. 

Perhaps more significant is the change to a decades-old system of direct payments to farmers — something that has long been a sticking point, not just for conservative legislators, but for many whose districts don’t include a lot of farmland. 

In their place, the bill puts more money into a crop insurance program, which farmers can now buy into more cheaply to help guard against risk. This isn’t a great deal for farmers, who are going from receiving payments to having the option of buying insurance. But it’s hard to defend a sprawling system of subsidies that has been criticized for putting money into the hands of even those farmers who do not grow a single crop. Certainly our tax dollars can be more wisely spent on farmers who are actually working hard and need the assistance. 

There was some good news for local dairy farmers in the bill, which replaced the Milk Income Loss Contract system with a margin insurance program. This program issues payments to farmers when the difference between the price of feed and the price of milk falls below a certain amount. 

The program doesn’t offer the market stabilization for which some farmers were hoping, but it does offer some relief from the constraints of the old system. 

Perfect? Far from it. But perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of good. And this farm bill has the potential to do a lot of good.