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Lugar amendment evokes emotional response in ag committee

Vivyan Adair was on welfare when she entered North Seattle Community College in 1986. Although she was a high school dropout and the single mother of an infant daughter, Adair persevered, eventually earning a Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 1997.

Adair, now the Elihu Root Peace Fund Professor of Women's Studies at Hamilton College in New York, speaks frequently these days about how getting an education helped her, her daughter and thousands of other women escape poverty.

But Adair's appearances carry this admonition: Because of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act and the failure of Congress to index the benefits of such programs as food stamps, it is much more difficult for young women and men to duplicate her accomplishments these days.

What does that have to do with agriculture, or, more specifically, the 2007 farm bill? Well, a funny thing happened on the way to the Senate Agriculture Committee's unanimous approval of the legislation the Senate was expected to take up the week of Nov. 5.

Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., offered an amendment to increase funding for two nutrition programs — food stamps and the Emergency Food Assistance Program or TEFAP. Lugar's amendment was defeated 17-4, but he pricked the consciences of committee members.

Lugar's amendment would have raised the food stamp asset limit from $2,000 to $3,000 for most households and from $3,000 to $4,000 for households with elderly or disabled persons. It also would have increased the minimum food stamp benefit from $10 to a level that is 10 percent of the maximum Thrifty Food Plan benefit.

“The asset limit has not been adjusted for inflation since 1986, but, if it had, in 2008, the asset limit would be $3,700 for most households and $5,500 for elderly and disabled households,” said Lugar. “In 2008, the amendment would mean the minimum food stamp benefit would be $16, a 60 percent increase.

“Because the Thrifty Food Plan is adjusted annually for inflation, so would the minimum benefit value, meaning beneficiaries would not lose purchasing power over time. The $10 minimum benefit has not changed in 30 years and this provision will bring increased benefits to 758,000 Americans.”

The problem for committee members was Lugar's plan to offset the amendment's cost with a $1.7-billion decrease, over five years, in the farm bill's $26-billion direct payment program. Some senators said it would upset the “balancing act” they had achieved in writing the committee farm bill.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, applauded the amendment, noting witnesses, including one from Ohio, who had spoken at a hearing about running out of benefits before the end of a month. Other members said they would try to find sources for increasing asset limits and the minimum benefits for recipients.

Later, Chairman Tom Harkin announced that an additional $1 billion in savings from the average crop revenue would fund increases in food stamp benefits. Vivyan Adair and others hope the funding will stick.

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