(Editorial note: Monday, the Great Bend Tribune reported on the Congressman’s Farm Bill listening tour stop in Haven. The bill touches many areas of American life, and there were many sides presented at that meeting. Here is our second report.)
HAVEN -- When Congressman Roger Marshall opened the floor to people attending his Farm Bill Listening tour in Haven Saturday, he fielded some tough questions. He stood firm, providing in some instances some not so easy answers.
Garrett Wilkinson and Kennedie Hackert, medical students from Kansas State University, are also members of RESULTS, an advocacy organization concerned with inter poverty issues. They spoke in favor of funding the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and asked Marshall to support the program and oppose structural changes. The program is funded in part through the farm bill.
“Many people may not realize that SNAP is our nation’s first defense against hunger,” he said. According to US Census data, he said, the program lifted 4.6 million people out of poverty in 2015, but was now threatened with $115 billion in cuts from the federal budget, and another $10 billion in cuts under reconciliation.
Wilkinson and Hackert shared two stories about people they knew who had benefitted from SNAP. Wilkinson’s friend, as a child, grew up with his sister and disabled father. With only SNAP and the father’s disability check, the family was so poor, they couldn’t afford to pay their utilities for a time, and resorted to heating their space with the clothes dryer. One night, the dryer caught on fire, injuring his friend. That was many years ago, and the friend is now in college and will soon enter the military.
“I have to ask where would he be without SNAP as a child,” he said. “He’s doing really great things now, but SNAP really helped to put food on the table when they were young.”
Hackert spoke of serving a woman and her children at a church dinner. The woman was grateful for the meal because their SNAP benefits had run out, and she hadn’t eaten for three days so her children could eat.
They were hopeful Marshall and others on the Ag Committee would halt further cuts through the 2018 Farm Bill. Wilkinson asked Marshall about the timeline for the budget, and if he would oppose cuts to SNAP and also oppose the structural changes proposed.
Before he answered, Marshall asked the Wilkinson and Hackert about food security and access in rural Kansas, noting that the Big First is the largest agricultural district in the nation.
Wilkinson responded that access to affordable, nutritious food is an issue in some areas.
“The crops we are producing are wheat, corn and sorghum. Somebody can’t just eat those things just by themselves,” he said. Fruits and vegetables are expensive and aren’t subsidized the way corn and sorghum are, he added, and that is another policy issue in itself, he said.
Marshall named off programs including WIC, food banks, and school lunches, and asked Wilkinson what is working well and what’s not working well in nutrition. Wilkinson said SNAP is working well, has a less-than-one-percent fraud rate, and as a further measure of success, he restated his original case that SNAP lifts people out of poverty.
The back-and-forth dialogue between the two continued, with Wilkinson agreeing that more jobs would equal less demand for SNAP. But he added, there are many people who are currently working full time who still qualify for SNAP, so care should be taken to determine if working people still qualify for the program before taking away benefits.
Marshall responded to Wilkinson’s earlier question, stating that he is focused on growing the economy and helping people get jobs and moving them from welfare to work.
“The government doesn’t have unlimited amounts of money,” he said. “We have to prioritize it to make sure we get it to the people who need it the most. I’m not ready to comment on what exactly I will oppose or not oppose on the Farm Bill.”
‘Where will jobs come from?’
When Wilkinson and Hackert took their seats, a man asked if he could discuss Marshall’s response, and Marshall invited him to come forward and handed him the microphone.
Cole Rupp grew up in Northwest Kansas, and has been in law enforcement for nearly 13 years, so a lot of the people he deals with are in poverty. His wife is a teacher in a Title 1 school, and they regularly spend $250 out of their own pockets each month to supplement supplies and nutrition for her students so they have what they need to learn, he said.
“The problem isn’t one of being an immigrant, or not having enough education,” he said. “The problem is, there are no jobs.”
He referred to the 2015 closing of Petersen Industries in Smith County, and the announcement Aug. 18 that Siemens intends to layoff 140 workers this fall, as non ag-related jobs that are not expected to be replaced.
He questioned the priorities of the federal budget with increases to defense spending to support efforts overseas, yet proposing cuts of support to programs like SNAP that help many rural Americans.
“When you talk about jump-starting the economy, what do you have in mind,” he asked.
Marshall then responded.
“It can’t get much worse economically in Kansas,” he said. Never in his lifetime could he remember such a long term suppression of prices for commodities, cattle, oil and gas.
“I understand it is hard times and I agree with you, Kansas is not catching up. Kansas is struggling. The number one thing I can do is open up trade markets, along with decreasing regulation. Decreasing the cost of healthcare will (also) go a long way for the business owners in this town, and individuals as well.”