President Donald Trump’s new budget proposal targets food assistance across the United States and critical programs for public health, says Mike Lavender of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Food & Environment program
AARON MATE: It’s the Real News. I’m Aaron Mate. President Trump is proposing a budget that would cut government spending by 3.6 trillion dollars. Its main targets are programs for low income Americans, like Medicare, welfare, and Food Stamps. Along with that comes a major reduction in spending on the environment and science. Trump wants to shrink the Environmental Protection Agency budget by 31% and the US Department of Agriculture by 20%. What cost could this have on public health? Joining me is Mike Lavender, a Senior Washington Representative for the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Food and Environment Program. Mike, welcome. MIKE LAVENDER: Great. Thanks so much. AARON MATE: As we continue to process the severity of this budget, trillions of dollars, cutting vital programs, we wanted to have you on to hone in on the environmental and public health costs. What’s your assessment of this budget in that area? MIKE LAVENDER: I think this budget is really devastating, particularly to public health, particularly to rural Americans, as well as urban Americans, but the budget very clearly targets the health of low income families and low income individuals, and I think nowhere is that better represented than in the cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as SNAP or Food Stamps, which is under the purview of the Department of Agriculture, but that program is reduced by almost 200 billion dollars over 10 years, and oftentimes with budget cuts, the impacts on people are difficult to demonstrate, but with that size of cut to SNAP, the impacts would be quite directly increasing suffering and increasing hunger amongst tens of millions of Americans, children, veterans, disabled veterans and working adults as well. The impacts, particularly on the public health side, are really pronounced at the Department of Agriculture. AARON MATE: Yeah, Mike. Usually with budgets, at least there’s some partisan considerations, at least sometimes, but in this case, it appears that something like the cut to the Supplemental Assistance Program targets people across party lines, even the hardcore supporters of Donald Trump. MIKE LAVENDER: That’s exactly right. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program has a reputation for being an urban only program, which relies on contrived stereotypes of past eras, but what we know is we know that SNAP is actually operating in every county in the country and benefits every kind of person and every kind of community, whether it’s rural or urban. Given the fact that President Trump rode on a wave of support particularly from rural America into the White House, it’s really striking that he would target for such deep cuts, a program that benefits rural Americans just as much as it does urban Americans. AARON MATE: I mentioned the cut to the USDA of 20%. That’s a pretty big figure. Can you talk about what the impact of that could be? MIKE LAVENDER: USDA is a relatively unique agency in that it really touches every aspect of our food and farm system. As we mentioned, it oversees the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which helps families and individuals get access to meals, but it, also, works on things that help incentivize farmers to adopt more environmentally friendly conservation practices. It works on food safety. It works on a wide range of things, all the way from the field to the grocery store. When you’re talking about cuts to the Department of Agriculture, there are impacts across our daily lives. One of the most direct things is there are proposals to reduce by tens of millions of dollars, more than 30 million dollars, the amount of money we invest in agricultural research. It’s not necessarily a sexy topic, but less money for ag research means we’re not giving farmers the sound science and the sound tools they need to respond to a changing climate. Obviously we’ve discussed the cuts to SNAP and how that would impact families. There’s a wide range of cuts. There are, also, cuts to rural development economic programs. In fact, some of the programs have been proposed to be eliminated. Rural American communities are experiencing a number of different things and have been over the past number of years, and really USDA is a key support for those communities. Kind of up and down the line, cuts to USDA impact every day Americans no matter of where you live in a number of different ways. AARON MATE: You mentioned farmers earlier, and the budget does include some cuts to farming subsidies. I’m wondering if that could possibly be viewed from a positive angle, given that there are farming subsidies that go to crops that ultimately end up making unhealthy food? MIKE LAVENDER: I think the really important thing to start off with with limiting subsidies is who are these subsidies going to, and what crops, as you mentioned, are they supporting? We want here, at the Union of Concerned Scientists, we want a safety net, a farmer safety net to crop subsidies that support all farmers and that equally treat all different kinds of crops, and that’s not necessarily what we have right now. The budget actually proposes several different things, like instituting a cap for subsidies that farmers could get in a given year at $40,000. There’s a couple of other means testing things to allow only federal dollars from a subsidy program to go to farmers of a smaller size. Those are good things, and we actually appreciate the discussion around those proposals, but the only way that proposals like that are going to move forward is through Congress. Congress ultimately, through the Farm Bill process, which is coming up in the next year or so, needs to address that issue there. This isn’t something that can be proposed by the administration and moved forward unilaterally. I think the administration is approaching the crop subsidy reform as a way to generate savings, and the way we look at it is savings are good, but we actually want to reinvest those savings into agriculture, so we can increase the environmental benefits of certain agricultural practices, so we can clean up our water, so we can have healthy soil, so farmers can continue to farm for generations. It’s really what you do with those savings that’s the critical question. AARON MATE: Mike, on the issue of what’s called food deserts, the absence of access to healthy food in many impoverished areas across the country, does the budget have any implications for that? MIKE LAVENDER: Not that we’ve seen yet. I think probably the closest connection would be is a part of the cuts to the SNAP program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. About 99% of the cuts come from reforming how the program is funded itself, but one of the smaller pots of money is actually requiring authorized retailers, so the stores, whether it be Walmart or your corner grocery store in your neighborhood that isn’t a chain, the new requirement would ask those stores at varying levels to actually give money on their application fee when they apply to become part of the SNAP program. Depending on which store, if it’s a small mom and pop store in your corner, they’re going to be asked to pay an additional fee in order to become a part of the SNAP program, and that could have the impact of actually preventing more retailers from getting into the program, which would ultimately mean fewer options for people no matter where they live. We know access to food is particularly a problem in rural areas. Obviously urban areas as well, but it really doesn’t discriminate in terms of geography. I would say that is the major thing, is that we’re requiring the stores who participate in the SNAP program to actually pay more to participate. That could be a limiting factor and could ultimately have the impact of reducing health and nutrition for the people who need it most. AARON MATE: Mike, we’re talking about massive cuts to federal spending at the national level, and the Republican talking point that we often hear, we heard it with the health care push and now we’re hearing it now with the budget, that this is a way to give more power to the states. Can you talk about the ability of states to be able to handle oversight and safety issues when it comes to things like food and health? MIKE LAVENDER: I think one of the best examples we have is of the SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and a program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. You don’t necessarily need to remember those names, but what you need to know is that TANP was once a massive program that was run at the federal level, and a number of decades ago, it was actually given to the states and block granted as they say. The states now entirely control TANP, and what we’ve actually seen in the intervening years is that SNAP, because it’s a federally controlled program, is actually able to respond to economic crises better. In the example of the 2008 Great Recession, because SNAP is a federally funded program, it was able to increase its enrollment. When people were losing their jobs, when people’s incomes were going down, SNAP was able to increase. TANP, on the other hand, which is a state controlled program, didn’t have the same increase in participation during the Great Recession. We have this great example of programs that do good things, but one is controlled by states and one is controlled by the federal government, and actually the one controlled by the federal government, SNAP, did a much better job of continuing to provide nutrition to the people who needed it in helping to pull them out of poverty. That’s just one example, but the federal government does a great job. Obviously when you turn things like that over to states, things can vary from to state and state, and so you actually would be discriminating between residents of one state or another the benefits that they can get, and that’s not something that we think is the right way to go. We think people across the country deserve these rights. We think that’s what a democracy is about. Maintaining the federal structure of programs like SNAP and others is really key to making sure that the most vulnerable in our society have the resources they need to get through and ultimately onto other things. AARON MATE: Finally, Mike, I have to ask you about Sam Clovis. He’s a former right wing radio talk show host, and now he’s being rumored as President Trump’s choice to be the chief scientist at the USDA. Can you talk about who he is? MIKE LAVENDER: Yeah. Mr. Clovis has been a long time associate of President Trump and has been an agricultural advisor to him. Mr. Clovis was a professor at Morningside College in Iowa for a number of years, and, as you mentioned, has been a conservative talk show radio host. I think one of the things that jumps out to you most strikingly when you’re looking over his resume and what he’s done, is that there’s no background in agricultural research. There’s no background in agricultural science, and that’s the position that he’s been rumored to have been nominated for. The nomination hasn’t officially happened yet, but he could potentially be in control of USDA’s REE, Research, Education and Economics, and that’s the person who oversees all of the research that’s done at USDA, and that’s a critical position for really making sure that farmers can continue to handle the challenges of climate change and other variables that they see, so that they can maintain their livelihood. The fact that we are considering putting someone in that position who has no background in agricultural research, that’s a huge red flag, and I would, also, mention that the person in that role, also, has the additional responsibility of overseeing scientific integrity at USDA, and so maintaining scientific integrity, allowing scientists to speak out about their work, not tampering with any research that scientists are doing based on political consideration is critically important to USDA’s work, to helping farmers, and it’s really fundamental to our democracy, so making sure that we have someone who understands science, someone who has a background in it, and is someone who could defend scientists at USDA is critical, and Mr. Clovis, based on his background, doesn’t necessarily fit those buckets. AARON MATE: Well, Mike Lavender of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Food and Environmental Program, we’re certainly going to continue to keep our eye on this, and we thank you for sharing your analysis. MIKE LAVENDER: Great. Thanks so much. AARON MATE: Thank you for joining us on The Real News.