Americans who cannot afford to eat can take some comfort in the farm bill approved by the U.S. Senate, which cut food stamps by a manageable $4 billion over the next 10 years. The House, which is expected to vote on its version of the legislation this week, wants to cut food stamps by five times that amount. But the real winner (again) is America's sugar industry, which in this age of austerity still manages to retain its bloated public handouts from import quotas and price supports.
The Senate bill, passed last week, would spend $955 billion over the next 10 years, about $24 billion less than current levels. Democrats and Republicans said the vote showed the two parties could find common ground in curbing domestic spending. They hailed the measure as more compassionate than the pending House bill, which would cut food stamps by more than $20 billion and has triggered a veto threat from President Barack Obama.
What the senators didn't say is that Americans pay several times for the sugar subsidies — and that the poor pay even more. Import quotas create a baited field for American producers, keeping low-cost sugar from outside the country out of domestic markets and forcing U.S. consumers to pay artificial rates. Price supports guarantee that American producers do not have to bother with being efficient or competitive. Consumers also pay higher costs for every food product that contains sugar — in other words, nearly everything on the grocery shelf. Then federal and state taxpayers shell out again for the multibillion-dollar cleanup of the Everglades, long a dumping ground for the runoff from the sugarcane fields in South Florida. The poor pay still another time, because inflated prices for sugar mean their food stamps don't go as far as they could. That robs their nutrition and the U.S. taxpayer.
Both Florida senators, Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Marco Rubio, voted with the 54-45 majority to reject even scaling back the sugar subsidies. Rubio, a tea party favorite, defended the protectionist policy by saying that Brazil and Mexico do it too. That is no excuse for bad tax policy and charging taxpayers multiple times for this corporate welfare.
These subsidies are a waste and a drain on consumers and the treasury. They also work against this nation's interest in liberalizing trade. Members of Congress should be more concerned about protecting food stamp recipients than the sugar industry. The proposal the House is debating this week could cut food stamp benefits to 2 million people, the vast majority of them in working-class households with children, elderly or disabled family members. Congress should force the sugar industry to stand on its own and steer the nation's public resources toward those who really need them.