Saturday, March 31, 2012

Cuts to SNAP in the Ryan budget

For many years, the Food Stamp Program enjoyed reliable bi-partisan political support.  Even as the U.S. entitlement program for cash assistance was cut and converted to a block grant in the 1990s, food stamps remained largely unharmed.  Leading Republicans such as Senator Bob Dole joined leading Democrats in supporting food assistance for low-income Americans.

Now, at a time when U.S. household food insecurity is near record levels, the nation's largest food assistance program -- under its newer name the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) -- is targeted for the most severe cuts ever in its 50-year history.  According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, GOP Congressman Paul Ryan's proposed budget plan for 2013-2022, approved by the House of Representatives Thursday in a partisan vote, would cut SNAP by $133.5 billion, or 17 percent, over ten years.

In reaction to this proposed budget plan, GOP Presidential candidate Mitt Romney said, "It's an excellent piece of work."

Second-place GOP Presidential candidate Rick Santorum, according to the New York Times, said the budget didn't go far enough.

The New York Times editorial yesterday disagreed.  The Times said the proposed cuts "would mean a loss of $90 worth of food a month" for the average household.  If you read the Center on Budget's analysis carefully, clearly the Times should have said "a loss of $90 worth of food stamps in a month" (the distinction arises because SNAP benefits are effectively food support only in part and effectively income support for the remainder).  An economist colleague called me up to criticize this oversight in the Times editorial and to encourage me to post on this topic, saying of the Times: "It's an attempt to be inflammatory.  They wanted a big number."

I see the point, but I might add that the budget cut correctly described, $133.5 billion from SNAP, also is a big number, and perhaps also in this election season an attempt to be inflammatory.

Update (4/1/2012): My colleague encourages me to explain the economic flaw in the Times editorial even more clearly.  The issue has to do with the effect on food spending from an additional dollar of SNAP benefits.  A good rough estimate is that an additional dollar of SNAP benefits generates about 30 cents of additional food spending.  The rest of the additional SNAP benefit substitutes for cash income that the household otherwise would have spent on food, freeing up resources for other household needs such as housing or transportation.  The economic lesson is that a targeted benefit such as SNAP is in part a food subsidy and in part a general income subsidy.  The Times editorial should not have said the Ryan budget would generate a loss of $90 in food, but rather that the budget would generate a loss of $27 in food and $63 in other household needs.

With this correction in mind, my friend writes: "What you did not do in your blog post was tell your reader the nature of the NYT mistake and what the right concept is.... So finally, if I object, it is that you did not take this opportunity to teach a little economics and encourage accuracy.   You came very close to saying, lying is okay as long as the political cause is GOOD.   I do not think you really believe that."

Friday, March 23, 2012

Jim Moseley on AGree

The best moment in this video is former Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Jim Moseley's personal story about his two sons, both young farmers, one traditional and one organic.  Currently, Moseley is one of four co-chairs of a foundation-funded agricultural policy initiative called AGree.  The other co-chairs -- also each with their own videos -- are former USAID executive Emmy Simmons, Stonyfield Farm's Gary Hirschberg, and former Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman.  I am serving on an affiliated Research Committee, which has been difficult and highly educational work.  AGree also has an excellent news feed.

The most distinctive feature about AGree is the Advisory Committee, with representatives from all walks of life in U.S. agriculture and the food system. The purpose of the initiative is to improve the tenor of U.S. farm and food policy debate.  That's a difficult task, and the initiative is by no means ensured of success.  If it does have any success, it will be largely attributable to the courage, tolerance, and hard work of this remarkable Advisory Committee.

Why Calories Count

Why Calories Count, the new book by Marion Nestle and Malden Nesheim, nicely bridges the world of food policy commentary and nutrition science. It offers a great counterpoint to the loud and untrustworthy bazaar of diet books, each blaming some simple villain for the obesity epidemic (too much carbs, too much fat, too little calcium, whatever).  Why Calories Count teaches a wealth of detail about how calories are measured and how their effects are studied.  It also tells great stories, from the history of nutrition science to the poignant service of wartime conscientious objectors who participated in a clinical study of human starvation.  If I were a graduate student in nutrition or public health, I would find this book inspiring as an eloquent and engaging secondary reading alongside a nutrition science textbook.  Strongly recommended.

Links: Jane Brody, Mark Bittman.

Bon Me lunch truck in Boston

Today for the first time I had lunch at the Bon Me Truck at Dewey Square Plaza in Boston, operated by Friedman School alum Asta Schuette and partners. It is Boston's contribution to a trend toward high-quality food trucks around the country. Terrific real wholesome food. I should have visited much earlier.