Thursday, December 22, 2016

A consistent policy toward drug testing for recipients of USDA benefits

Governor Scott Walker (R-WI) this week urged President-elect Donald Trump to allow Wisconsin to implement drug testing for participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the nation's leading anti-hunger program and the largest program in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

One could argue that this is a bad idea, because people in the grips of substance addictions can be as poor and hungry as anybody else. Moreover, SNAP is a household benefit, so it is not clear how benefit cuts based on one person's drug test would affect innocent children and other relatives in the same family. Remedies other than taking away their food may be the most humane approach to this social problem.

Alternatively, if the incoming administration values drug testing, we can all agree that any drug testing for recipients of USDA funding should be consistent and fair across the board. One could imagine:
  1. Drug testing for SNAP participants. In other social safety net programs, evidence suggests that millions of dollars can be wasted chasing very few positives. But, this was Governor Walker's proposal, so it stays on the list.
  2. Drug testing for participants in farm subsidy programs. A 2011 study reported: "Current alcohol use, smokeless tobacco use, inhalant use, and other illicit drug use were more prevalent among high school-aged youths living on farms than among those living in towns." To be consistent with the household character of the SNAP drug tests, the testing would certainly include teenagers in the farm families. The Environmental Working Group shows 1995-2014 USDA payments to Wisconsin farmers of $7.6 billion. Surely, only a small fraction of this sum is spent on illegal drugs, but even a small fraction can add up.
One suspects that this consistent drug testing policy would find less support in the U.S. Congress. 

If Governor Walker's proposal fails to gain traction, perhaps Congress will then turn to more imaginative ways of reducing despair and hopelessness, and increasing prosperity and food security, for all recipients of USDA funding.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The nutrition title in the next farm bill

Choices Magazine, a publication of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association (AAEA), has my new commentary: "The Nutrition Title’s Long, Sometimes Strained, but Not Yet Broken, Marriage with the Farm Bill."

It describes the divergent budgetary forecasts for two major safety net programs, with falling spending for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and rising spending for the much larger Medicaid program.

Source: Author’s computations based on Congressional Budget Office (CBO), 2016.
Note: SNAP is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

There are two different conclusions that lawmakers could draw from these trends:
On the one hand, as they plan the next farm bill, legislators may accept falling SNAP costs and rising Medicaid costs, on grounds that the funding lost from SNAP still is going toward another important safety net program. On the other hand, legislators could reason that preventing poor nutrition and chronic disease makes more sense than treatment after the fact. From the latter perspective, providing extra resources for SNAP to address unhealthy eating and diet-related chronic disease may be a worthwhile investment if it slows the growth of Medicaid costs.
What will happen next? We can only guess.
In most past cycles, congressional debate over the farm bill was comparatively less partisan than debate over other legislation. This changed in the 2014 farm bill, as legislators concerned about the federal budget deficit challenged the traditional bipartisan support for farm programs, and criticism of SNAP had a more partisan character than usual. To reduce partisan tensions over this issue, Congress established a national commission on hunger in the 2014 omnibus appropriations bill. The commission’s final report was released in January, 2016 (National Commission on Hunger, 2015). The report places substantial emphasis on employment and training programs and requirements, and it proposes to exclude a narrowly defined class of sugar-sweetened beverages from SNAP eligibility, which is a provision likely to be opposed by SNAP’s supporters in anti-hunger organizations. At the same time, the report describes SNAP’s overall success in reducing the rates of household food insecurity and hunger in the United States.
In the next farm bill, it is uncertain whether to expect a renewal of the rancorous and partisan argument over the nutrition title. The commission’s report may serve as a roadmap for a less divisive nutrition title, if lawmakers seek such a thing.