WASHINGTON - More than twice as many people in the Buffalo region and nationwide receive food stamps today compared with a decade ago, and in a roundabout way, that's the reason upstate New York farmers and the rest of the country found themselves Wednesday marching on the Capitol.
The huge growth in the food stamp program has prompted House Republicans to demand that funding for it be cut, and that demand has stymied congressional efforts to pass a new five-year Farm Bill to replace the one that expires on Sept. 30.
As a result, advocates for the poor and many of the nation's farmers are equally upset.
"All of a sudden some people would not be able to put food on the table" under the cuts proposed by the House GOP, said Dale Zuchlewski, executive director of the Homeless Alliance of Western New York.
"I think because the Farm Bill covers crop insurance, the grape growers are very concerned," said Charlene M. Ryder of Dunkirk, a consultant working for the state grape industry.
House Republicans insist, though, that food stamps may have to face the chopping block.
"The reality is that we're dealing with a $60 trillion national debt," said Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning. "No one wants to make, I don't want to make these cuts. But at the end of the day, we need to start living within our means."
Reed said he is amenable to compromise on the issue and that he wants deserving poor people to be protected.
Others look at the food stamp program and see waste."We're giving it for junk food, and we're giving it to go to McDonald's, and it's got to stop," Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said in June during a Senate debate on the issue. "It's doubled in the last 10 years. We do not have an endless supply of money."
There are reasons for the program's growth.
In the past four years, 65 percent of the growth in spending on the program can be blamed on the weak economy, the Congressional Budget Office said in a recent report. About 20 percent of the increase stems from higher benefits included in the 2009 stimulus bill, while the rest is tied to other factors.
A bill passed by the House Agriculture Committee would tighten eligibility requirements and cut spending on food stamps by $1.6 billion a year. But with many Republicans wanting even deeper cuts, the House leadership has refused to bring the bill to the floor.
Meanwhile, the Senate has passed a Farm Bill that cuts about $400 million a year from food stamps. That's too much, according to Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., but it's far less than the House bill.
The cuts in the House bill would be "devastating," she said. "It would harm so many children, seniors and veterans. Those are the largest groups that now access food stamps."
The Obama administration projects that 3 million people would lose their food stamp benefits under the House GOP proposal. That translates to about 11,500 people in the Buffalo Niagara region, where 180,343 people received food stamps in June.
Ironically, the food stamp program will go on even if Sept. 30 passes without Congress enacting a Farm Bill.
That's because food stamp spending is authorized separately.
What's threatened by the Sept. 30 deadline is almost every other farm program, causing concern among those at Gillibrand's annual New York Farm Day Wednesday.
The talk in Congress is that the existing Farm Bill will be extended temporarily, but farmers prefer a full five-year extension, said David Beaudreau Jr., a lobbyist for the National Grape Cooperative Association, which includes Welch's, the venerable grape products producer with roots in Chautauqua County.
For farmers, "there's a problem planning for next year" with all the uncertainty surrounding the Farm Bill, Beaudreau said.