Changing What Is Possible

Politics, I remember reading somewhere, is the art of the possible. In a society as diverse in its opinions on social and economic matters as it is in its ethnic and racial makeup, the notion that we can expect our government to do what is right all the time is foolish.

And so we get compromise legislation like the federal farm bill, a mixed-bag of reforms that was probably the best bill we could hope for – but that also will do damage to federal nutrition programs and has some environmentalists and some segments of the farming community up in arms.

The nearly trillion dollar bill, which funds agricultural, school nutrition and federal food safety net programs for the next 10 years, ends direct farm subsidies and replaces them with beefed-up insurance programs, a move that is designed to save about $23 billion; cuts $8.6 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly food stamps); and saves another $6 billion by consolidating many conservation programs. The bill also contains about $14 billion in new spending – investments, in the parlance of the House-Senate Conference Committee that finalized the bill.

President Barack Obama signed the bill into law Feb. 7, about 20 months after the previous bill expired. The Senate version would have trimmed $4 billion from food stamps over 10 years while the House version would have cut $40 billion.

The response to the compromise bill has been mixed. The American Farm Bureau and other industry and commodity groups supported the bill, though not necessarily its details, because it would provide certainty for farmers for the next five years. Others, including those representing meat producers, opposed the bill because of labeling provisions and other specific issues.

The same dynamic has played out among safety-net advocates and environmentalists. The Food Research Action Center was highly critical of the SNAP cuts, as were many advocates at the state level in the 17 states likely to be hardest hit by the cuts.

The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank, supported the bill, saying it was the best option available for protecting food programs.

I won’t pretend to understand farm policy well enough to say whether the shift from direct payments to an insurance model will do a better job of protecting farmers or save money in the long run.

And I understand how the SNAP cuts came about – they focus primarily on what has been called the “heat-and-eat” loophole, a technical provision that allowed states to provide heating assistance rebates to low-income renters who pay utilities in their rent, one that also allowed states to increase income deductions for the same group and qualify some food-stamp recipients for extra benefits.

Is it a loophole? I don’t think so – as advocates have told me, recipients still need to qualify for SNAP before the deductions are taken into effect. But only 17 states will be affected by this – and the overall SNAP cut is just 1.5% of nutrition funding – so the political calculus becomes clear.

There are good and bad elements to this bill, as the wide disparity of opinion on nearly every one of its provisions shows. And it may be that, on balance, this was the best deal that could be done.

If so, then why does the result leave me feeling so empty?

The answer, I think, goes back to the proposition I offered at the beginning of this column. If politics truly is the art of the possible and this was the only outcome possible, what does that say about us as a nation?

One in six Americans still live in poverty. One in seven, according to the US Department of Agriculture, experience some food insecurity during the year. About 47 million Americans (nearly 23 million households) are enrolled in SNAP and receive $6.3 billion in benefits from the program monthly – for an average of just over $130 per person per month.

Rather than find ways to do more, we have crafted a bill that attempts to push SNAP recipients into jobs that don’t exist – no, the draconian work requirements sought by the GOP are not included, but states are being encouraged to create pilots that will link work and benefits – and offers some assistance to food pantries. This ignores the history of food pantries, which popped up around the nation because of the failure of federal safety net programs and which are, by their very nature, incapable of stitching the gaps in a badly frayed safety net.

Perhaps, this is the best we can expect when a Tea Party minority hold sway over the Republican Party and the Democrats are run by raging incrementalists. Perhaps, this is all we can get at a time when politics has been reduced to a zero-sum power struggle that ignores the real needs of real people.

Perhaps – but only if we continue to allow the people in Washington – the elected officials and lobbyists and consultants and pundits – to continue to define our political culture for us. But what if we reconsidered what is possible?

The politics of the possible can be changed, provided we are willing to force the change. Just as the Tea Party activated the right wing’s grassroots (whether corporate money is funding it or not is not the issue), the left – whether through a rebirth of the Occupy movement or in some other form – needs to re-engage. We need to force our priorities into the national consciousness and basically take over the debate. It’s not about electoral politics, but about moving the culture and forcing broader change that, ultimately, can pull the machinery of government along behind us. It’s happened before – the 1930s, the ‘60s – and it can happen again.

Hank Kalet is a poet and journalist in New Jersey. He writes for NJ Spotlight and other publications and teaches journalism at Rutgers University and writing at Middlesex County College. Email,,; blog,

From The Progressive Populist, March 1, 2014

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