EWG statement on the debt ceiling agreement: It will hurt hungry people

WASHINGTON – The following is the statement of Scott Faber, EWG’s senior vice president for government affairs, on the debt ceiling agreement released this week by President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). 

EWG is deeply disappointed that the debt ceiling agreement puts new obstacles in the path of hungry people seeking food assistance. Ending food assistance will not increase the number of people who work or the number of people who are seeking work but will simply increase the number of hungry people.

The biggest challenge facing food and farm policy makers ought to be that there are too many hungry people in the United States. But in the upside-down world of Washington, policymakers chose to increase hunger and to ignore the flow of money where it’s not needed – the coffers of tens of thousands of farmers with large, successful farms who have collected farm subsidies in some cases for 37 straight years. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, works the way our farm subsidy programs were intended to work – that is, SNAP provides people help when they need it, not when they don’t.

Most people rely on SNAP for a few months. By contrast, our bizarre web of farm subsidies has paid some farmers every year for 37 years – and counting. Speaker McCarthy has said food assistance programs like SNAP should be ‘a hand up, not a handout.’ Shouldn’t the same be true for farm subsidies?

Although the speaker has plenty to say about new work requirements for SNAP and other programs that help people in need, he has said nothing about the thousands of folks who live in our 50 largest cities and somehow receive farm subsidies, courtesy of taxpayers. There are people in living places like New York City and Los Angeles who have never been to a farm but still receive farm subsidies.

But when some policymakers insisted on making it easier for the cousins and nieces of farmers to receive subsidies, regardless of whether they live or work on the farm, Republicans did not object. When the number of these city slickers collecting farm subsidies exploded during the Trump administration, Republicans did not complain. In recent years, farm spending has never been higher, topping $40 billion in 2020. But when farm spending reached record levels under then-President Trump – and made up 40 percent of all farm household income – Republicans stood by silently.

Many of the farm households receiving farm subsidies have annual income well above $1 million, according to the Department of Agriculture. Unlike SNAP, our farm subsidies are not subject to meaningful asset or income tests. Farm insurance subsidies are not subject to any limits, not even payment limits. Because these subsidies are linked to production and revenue, the largest 10 percent of farmers collect more than half of these payments, regardless of need.

Of course, that’s not enough for some legislators, who are actively seeking to increase price guarantees in the next Farm Bill while also trying to make it harder for hungry people to get food assistance. Our generosity extends beyond farmers. We also give outlandish subsidies to farm insurance agents and guarantee farm insurance companies – most of which are based offshore – a 14 percent rate of return.

The vast majority of SNAP recipients who can work do work. Imposing extra work requirements only increases hunger, not the number of people who work. But by proposing to make it harder to receive food assistance, policymakers are not just hurting hungry people. They are also shifting attention away from the waste and abuse in our farm subsidy programs. We need a farm safety net, especially for our family farms. But we need one that works more like SNAP – one that helps farmers who get help when they need help. In other words, we need a farm safety net that provides a hand up, not a handout.


The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that empowers people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Through research, advocacy and unique education tools, EWG drives consumer choice and civic action

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