The president's proposed fiscal year 202 budget would cur the Department of Agriculture by 15%. (White House budget proposal)

After failing to accomplish its goal of cutting rural programs supporting low income families, economic development and conservation through the 2018 Farm Bill negotiations, the Trump administration is once again calling for deep spending and service cuts in rural America.

President Trump’s budget request to Congress, “A Budget for a Better America,” would decrease USDA spending by $3.6 billion, a 15% cut, though farm, food and rural development cuts amount to closer to $2.2 billion when compared with actual Congressional appropriations. Congress is expected to reject the proposal as they have done in the past.

Just like the 2018 and 2019 budgets, Trump’s budgets once again reflect similar proposals from the Republican Study Committee (the House Freedom Caucus policy arm) and the Heritage Foundation (a conservative “limited government” think tank).

“People who are working day-to-day on the farm or in rural communities, they don’t have time to pay attention to all of this, those are the people getting the short end of the stick in this budget,” said Wes King, senior policy specialist for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. “It does seem sometimes like they [the Trump administration] have made a calculation to keep the Freedom Caucus and Heritage Foundation happy.”

King is concerned that the budget proposal could re-open issues resolved in the 2018 Farm Bill, which passed with huge bipartisan majorities in December. “While we generally support reforms to crop insurance and commodity programs, why are they choosing to take this on now?” King asked, pointing to provisions in the president’s budget to limit farm program payments to high-income families.

“The farm bill got signed into law in December. Trump signed it. Why propose to open up the farm bill again right after you signed these investments into law. It leaves you scratching your head wondering, is this serious?” King said.

King and others in the sustainable agriculture community are also concerned about the president’s proposal to eliminate the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). “That’s concerning because of the way the farm bill legislative process went down and how the Trump administration has previously proposed to eliminate CSP. House Republicans have repeatedly tried to eliminate CSP. The fact that it’s on their list again adds to our concerns, so obviously this is one of the places we’re going to have to be most vigilant when it comes to oversite of farm bill implementation.”

The National Farmers Union (NFU) also criticized the Trump budget. “For three years now, President Trump has been calling for cuts to important programs within USDA,” NFU President Roger Johnson said in a statement. “Yet for the third straight year, a majority of American farmers and ranchers are expected to lose money farming. Major relief is needed to weather these tough times in agriculture. It’s time the president’s policy proposals and rhetoric acknowledge the financial pain in farm country.”

Trump’s USDA budget also proposes big cuts in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and additional work requirements for recipients, another administration priority rejected by Congress during the farm bill debate. The budget proposal will cut the  $220 billion over the next 10 years in SNAP, said Jim Weill, president of Food Research & Action Center (FRAC), in a press release.

“Such astronomical cuts will not only increase hunger and poverty, but will worsen health outcomes, decrease the ability of children to do well in school, and lower productivity, all of which will exact a heavy toll on the American economy,” Weill stated.

Rural residents are more dependent on SNAP payments than urban and suburban regions. From 2012 through 2016, about 15 percent of rural households (defined as nonmetropolitan counties) participated in SNAP. That’s at least 2 percentage points higher than the rate for metropolitan residents. Nearly 90% of counties with a SNAP usage rate of 30% or greater are rural.  The counties with the highest rural SNAP-participation rates are clustered in the places with the highest rates of persistent poverty: the Black Belt in the Deep South, Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta and Native American tribal communities in the Great Plains and West.

The Trump budget also proposes changes in USDA research funding, including budget cuts and moving the Economic Research Service (ERS). The budget proposal includes $45 million for ERS programs and $15.5 million for ERS relocation, a 48% cut from 2019 program levels.

“USDA’s proposal to cut the Economic Research Service programs budget in half speaks volumes: USDA does not value the statistics, research, and analysis that ERS provides to support our food, agriculture, and rural economies,” Ron Wasserstein, executive director of the American Statistical Association, wrote in an email to the Yonder.

“It’s as if they are saying, ‘Who needs evidence-based policymaking? We are experts so just trust us.’ We trust Congress will maintain the ERS budget, and keep ERS and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) in the National Capital Region,” Wasserstein wrote. He also said he hopes USDA does not restructure ERS.

NSAC’s King also commented about the proposed changes to USDA research funding. “There’s a pretty nice additional increase for AFRI [the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative grant program] for ag research, but that’s in the context of cuts to other research programs, so it leaves you scratching your head a bit,” King said. “Is this all about flash and not substance? Because if you really cared about investing in agriculture research, you’d invest in research across the board instead.”

NSAC is also concerned about cuts for rural economic development. “If you look at all of the programs under the Rural Business Cooperative Service, there is no funding. Zero,” King said. “It’s absolutely mind-boggling to me that you have an entire service through Rural Development that is dedicated to building businesses and economic opportunities in rural communities and they’ve zeroed out the funding.”

“On top of that, they went out of their way to specifically eliminate the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP),” King said. REAP provides grants and loans for renewable energy projects, such as solar installations for farmers and small business owners.

The 2020 Trump budget proposal also includes additional cuts to conservation, nutrition, housing and some infrastructure programs. The budget also resurrects  the “harvest box” concept, which would replace some SNAP grocery benefits with boxes of wholesale commodity foods for low-income families.

The Trump budget went nowhere when the Republicans were in charge of both chambers of Congress the last two years. Democrats now control the House.

Democratic House Agriculture Committee Chair Collin Peterson slammed the USDA cuts, stating:

The president’s budget request is a road map for how to make things worse for farmers, ranchers and those who live in rural communities: $26 billion in cuts to crop insurance; $9 billion in cuts to successful, voluntary conservation programs; $5 billion in cuts to Section 32 programs that help purchase commodities in times of need; $8 billion in cuts to programs that help ranchers recover grazing lands hurt by drought; yet another attempt to cut SNAP; elimination of the Rural Energy for America and Rural Economic Development programs and billions in other cuts. This proposal tells us one of two things: either the White House doesn’t understand why these programs are important, or they don’t care. What’s more, all of these shortsighted cuts are second and third attempts to revisit policy proposals that were rejected in the farm bill negotiations. This budget was concocted by a bunch of ideologues who can’t see what’s clearly going on in the farm economy. The good news is this budget is going nowhere in Congress, where the bipartisan farm bill passed with 369 votes.

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