Subsidies make an economy work. After all, very little could be accomplished without collaboration.
Residents of Eastern Oregon know this as well as anyone. We are no strangers to government subsidies. Ranchers benefit from subsidized grazing fees — in fact, the U.S. Department of the Interior just lowered grazing fees on public lands to the tune of roughly $1.35 per animal, down from $1.87 in 2017.
Between 1995 and 2017 Wallowa County agriculture received more than $550 million in subsidies, including almost $250 million for commodities, according to federal data.
And this is good. Food costs less while demand remains high. Producers sell more, consumers buy more; it’s common sense. Local people delight in buying local produce, which helps take care of our own.
These subsidies not only benefit the farmers and ranchers directly, but the community as a whole.
But there’s another equally important but often misunderstood subsidy program that achieves the same end. In fact, its inception began with the very same notion. We’re talking about food stamps, or SNAP —Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. What many don’t realize is that the genesis of food stamps was lobbied by rural farmers during the Great Depression.
Initially the idea wasn’t so much targeted at feeding the hungry, but an attempt to safeguard the price of food in rural America and stabilize markets.
But for some reason SNAP, unlike agricultural subsidies, is left with a bad rap based on unfounded misconceptions. An opponent might suggest that SNAP only benefits non-working freeloaders. Simply not true. Others might falsely argue high levels of fraud. Even less true.
Largely because of the higher than normal level of seasonal employment, Umatilla County receives slightly higher numbers of food stamp allotments than the rest of Oregon, and in some cases the nation. In 2018, 19 percent of Umatilla County residents received food stamps, compared with 15 percent of Oregonians. Most SNAP recipients either work at least seasonally and/or have children to provide for. In fact, 24 percent of children benefit from SNAP resources.
So while the program wasn’t designed solely to feed the hungry, it evolved to that point primarily after then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy shed light on desperate poverty in Appalachia in the 1960s, coupled with a sizable expansion under the Nixon Administration.
In 2018, annual federal SNAP dollars spent by the federal government totaled $1.3 million. For context, agriculture subsidies for the year 2017 totaled $2.3 million. But to reiterate, this is good not just for the individual recipients but also for our whole community.
So while it’s evident that feeding the hungry is a good thing, it’s good also to remember that it benefits the economy as well, just as farm subsidies are good economic stabilizers. Report after report shows that for every dollar we put into SNAP, our GDP benefits from roughly $1.79, according to the USDA. That’s almost a 200 percent return on our collective investment.
Furthermore, the Economic Policy Institution says, “SNAP has kept over 5 million people out of poverty.”
But is there fraud? Forbes reported that less than one percent of all SNAP recipients engage in fraud. That’s 1 percent out of more than 46 million beneficiaries compared with 5 million people lifted out of poverty — so let’s not be so quick to throw the baby out with the bath water.
Many economists call this “demand-side” or “middle-out” economics. The idea is that when we put money into the hands of folks who by necessity spend it all, the local economy grows. In a community like ours, “middle-out-economic” policies can go a long way. And they do.
Low-income people spend the money they have — they have no other choice. So all of this money goes directly into the local economy, increases demand and supports our ranchers, our farmers and our markets. It’s been among the most efficient and effective spending programs this nation has ever seen.
The current administration has now prioritized making drastic cuts to the SNAP program. In 2018 it even suggested returning to food boxes, doing nothing but taking autonomy from local buyers of local products.
An economy like ours is like an ecosystem. Let’s treat it delicately and promote the program’s work.