The Geography of the Just-Passed Farm Bill

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The U.S. Senate just approved the compromise Farm Bill that passed the House last week. In the classic tradition of Farm Bills, it's a big mix of money for food programs and funding for farmers — helping two largely disparate groups of people.

On Monday, the Senate voted to end a filibuster on the bill, with only three Democrats voting against moving the bill forward. Tuesday's vote was 68 to 32, with nine Democrats joining the Republican opposition.

Via the Post

The Washington Post has a good overview of what's in the bill, including the graph at right. Food stamps — the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — are the heavy bulk of spending. The new bill revises a program that linked heating subsidies to food benefits to trim almost $9 billion from the total amount. The net effect, via MSNBC: "850,000 households across the country are set to lose an average of $90 per month in food stamp benefits."

Food stamp recipients took a hit while farmers receiving crop insurance got a small increase in allocations. Which is why the low level of Democratic opposition to the compromise was seen by some as a capitulation. While there's been increasing opposition to the amount that is spent on crop insurance, Republicans have been adamant in trying to cut food stamp coverage. Last year, the House voted to cut $39 billion from the program, which never passed the Senate. But last fall, a rollback of a recession-prompted boost to benefits reduced benefits $36 a month for an average family. Two hits in a row.

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Both issues prompt claims of abuse — such as how billionaire Seattle Seahawks owner/Microsoft alum Paul Allen benefitted from farm subsidies in 2013. But the real issue is geography.

Take crop insurance. The government acts as an insurer of the insurance companies that offer protection to farmers. The Department of Agriculture's Risk Management Agency tallies data on insurance claims and costs, which you can see here. In the 2013 crop year, farmers paid premiums on 1.1 million policies, covering 3.4 million production units. Those policies were subsidized to the tune of $7 billion, with $9.9 billion being paid out after claims. Those aren't actual costs to the government: subsidization is complex, and it's the insurers largely who are paying the $9.9 billion. What's interesting is where the pay-outs, the indemnities, took place.

Crop insurance payments, 2013

Map from the USDA

Compare that map to the map of food stamp recipients by county in 2010.

Food stamp recipients by county, 2010

Data from the Census Bureau

There's a lot of discrepancy between the two! Which you should expect. The food stamp map, of course, is largely a map of population. Where more people live, more people are on food stamps. Where fewer people live, there are more farms. Not rocket science — and it's why using a food stamp map from 2010 doesn't significantly change things. But it makes clear why there's the political split: rural Republicans versus urban Democrats. The Farm Bill has often been a something-for-everyone proposition.

What will be interesting to watch is how crop insurance fares as the weather gets hotter and drier thanks to climate change. In 2013, just under a quarter of the national indemnity claims were for drought. After 2012, the hottest year in recorded U.S. history, crop insurance claims hit a record level. As those costs increase, the extent to which they're protected on Capitol Hill will become a more and more challenging political proposition.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.