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Reconnecting Farm and Rural Policies
Several key factors have changed dramatically since Congress debated and passed the last U.S. farm bill in 2007-2008—and the rural United States would be unrecognizable to the leaders who framed farm policies in the 1930s. The agriculture committees of both chambers are now drafting the next farm bill.
Learn more about what’s at stake in the farm bill in this excerpt from the 2012 Hunger Report:
Federal farm policy can be traced back to the Great Depression. Farm policy during the Great Depression not only helped farmers keep producing the food needed to feed the country, but also kept rural America from sinking deeper into poverty. From 1929 to 1932, during the first years of the Great Depression, farm income plummeted by 52 percent, so the 1933 act was much-needed.
In the early years of farm policy, government support for farmers was the equivalent of rural development: the farm sector was indivisible from the rest of the rural economy. When the Agricultural Assistance Act of 1933 was written, farmers made up half the rural population. Today, farm policy exists primarily to enhance the incomes of individual farmers, and any ripple effects for the rest of the residents of rural communities are less than apparent.
The face of rural poverty has changed since those early farm policies were established. Poor people in rural areas now work primarily in the service sector—much like poor people in metropolitan areas. Just 6.5 percent of the rural labor force works on a farm. Farmers themselves are not often poor; the median income of farm households is higher than of U.S. households as a whole. Some farming areas have high rates of poverty, particularly the Deep South and parts of the West, but it’s unusual for people who earn a living farming to be in poverty. The major exception is immigrant farm workers, whose experiences of poverty in America are some of the harshest.
Farm policies that support the incomes of American farmers seem unnecessary at this point. And, in fact, most farmers don’t receive any direct support from the U.S. government. Among those who do, there are gaping inequalities—the largest, wealthiest farms receive much more than everyone else. It is hard to make a case that this is fair under any circumstances, but particularly at a time when elected officials are scouring the budget to eliminate wasteful spending. This is an optimal time to rethink U.S. farm policy.
Reforming farm policy does not mean eliminating support. Farming is a risky undertaking, and all farmers need a guarantee of government protection in the event of a catastrophic loss in revenue. Tornadoes, droughts, floods, heat waves, frost, erratic markets, tit-for-tat trade policies: these are only some of the systemic risks that are beyond the control of individual farmers and justify a government safety net. But what kind of safety net, who is included, and how and when to use it, are the questions that make all the difference.
Photo caption: People who earn their living as farmers have a unique role in society as stewards of an essential public good—an agriculture system that feeds and nourishes everyone. Photograph by Todd Post.
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