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Transcript:

April 11, 2008

BILL MOYERS: The present farm bill expires next Friday with all those subsidies in it. The White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives are trying to resolve their differences over a new bill to replace it. Every one of you will be affected by what happens in the next few days. Let's talk now with someone who can help us understand what's going on. You met David Beckmann last week when our subject was world hunger. An economist and minister, he spent 15 years at the World Bank overseeing projects to end poverty. For the last 15 years he's been president of Bread for the World, a Washington based coalition that advocates changing farm policies for the purpose of eliminating hunger. Welcome, David, back to The Journal.

DAVID BECKMANN: Thank you.

BILL MOYERS: We've just seen in this broadcast two different reports. One on hungry people lining up for food stamps, going to the food pantries. Then we saw this report done with the Washington Post on abusive farm subsidies. How do you explain that contradiction?

DAVID BECKMANN: The main thing is that the people who are getting- who have their hands in the cookie jar are well organized. And according to the Wall Street Journal, they spent eighty million dollars last year lobbying Congress to defend those subsidies to affluent people.

DAVID BECKMANN: Commodity growers, the corn growers, the cotton growers.

BILL MOYERS: Rice growers. We saw rice growers in that film.

DAVID BECKMANN: Absolutely. So they're well organized. A group of church and environmental groups went to see Senator Reid, the majority leader of the Senate, about this issue. He came in and the first thing he said is, "Look, I've been here 35 years." He said, "I think the two best organized interests in the United States are the insurance companies and the commodity groups." He said they have very powerful friends on both sides of the aisle. It's going to be very difficult for us to do anything about this.

BILL MOYERS: It seemed for the last several months, before the last several months that you were going to get some reform of the subsidies.

DAVID BECKMANN: Well, we may still. The farm bill is being negotiated right now at the highest levels between the House and the Senate and the administration. So, I still think we have a good chance to get reform. And we've won the argument.

DAVID BECKMANN: All year long, over the last fifteen months, I've talked with a number of the legislators who are our main opponents. And only one of them has ever said- has ever tried to convince me that I was wrong.

Our opponents, what they'll say to me is, you know, David, I appreciate what you're doing. We just can't do that. So we, you know, there is no argument anymore. It's just raw power. Now, the, you know, the people who are getting these payments, I'm going to say that they're not bad people.

I come from Nebraska. My cousins, I've got cousins who are farming corn and soy beans. And you know, they've built their business on the system that we've got. But if you go into a small town in Nebraska and have coffee with farmers in the morning, it's the richest guy in town who's got a big spread and has money in the ethanol plant; he's getting the check, the big check.

And the people who are really struggling, you know, the couple- an elderly couple where they're still farming, they're still feeding some hogs. They're not getting a nickel out of the farm bill

BILL MOYERS: Grain prices are soaring. Farm income is at record levels. Our federal deficit is out of sight. And yet, Congress is thinking about passing a new farm bill that according to the Wall Street Journal will be the most lavish subsidies in American history.

DAVID BECKMANN: Yeah. It's just absolutely crazy. But these people are well organized. They push hard. So far, the House wasn't willing to cut a nickel from subsidies to land holders, big land owners.

DAVID BECKMANN: And in the Senate, they want to increase payments to wealthy affluent land holders. And the choice couldn't be clearer. Because the food stamp program and government assistance to food banks is in the farm bill.

You know, so we have 25 million of the poorest people in America on food stamps. And we now know because it's all computerized that ninety percent of the benefits are gone by the third week of the month

And the fastest most direct way to reduce hunger in America would be to make it possible for those people to eat for the whole month.

And so far, Congress has not been willing to cut a nickel from the payments to land holders in order to strengthen the food stamp program. Or do things for rural Americans who are really struggling.

It's not just the food stamp program. The rate of poverty and hunger is higher in rural America than in urban America. So there are ways in the farm bill that they can help rural people who are small farmers and other rural people who are struggling. But shifting money from the commodity payments to the land owners, into those programs that help the whole rural community. So far, Congress has not been willing to budge.

BILL MOYERS: This is a little bit of repetition. I want to be sure my audience understands it. At the moment, the gridlock is over the fact that the House, led by the Democrats, wants to keep the subsidies for rich farmers, even while raising the amount of money that goes to food stamps and minority people in rural areas, right?

DAVID BECKMANN: Right.

BILL MOYERS: The Senate wants to increase-

DAVID BECKMANN: You got it.

BILL MOYERS: The subsidies going to the rich folks.

DAVID BECKMANN: And they want to do more for food stamps.

BILL MOYERS: Do more. But the President wants to cut the subsidies to rich folks, but he doesn't want to provide more money to pay for the food stamps and other.

DAVID BECKMANN: Right. He's told them if you increase taxes I'll veto this thing.

So if we could get a compromise, I think we could have a farm bill in two weeks.

BILL MOYERS: So what would a good bill look like to you and your coalition?

DAVID BECKMANN: Let's just start to move in the right direction. Start to shave some of the payments to wealthy people.

For example, there was an amendment in the Senate to cut payments to a farmer to no more than $250,000 per farmer. You know, cut payments, you can't get a payment if you make a million dollars a year.

Those are fairly reasonable proposals. And if we just start to turn that direction, it would free up substantial money to strengthen the food stamp program, strengthen our food banking system, strengthen assistance to rural America. And get out of the way of farmers in poor countries who are trying to make a living and don't have subsidies.

BILL MOYERS: How so?

DAVID BECKMANN: Because poor farmers in Africa and other parts of the developing world don't get these big subsidies.

They're competing against cotton that's farmed in Arkansas and Texas and Georgia on big spreads with big subsidies from the federal government. So our cotton with taxpayer dollars goes all over the world. And those poor guys in Africa are trying to compete against that. And it's crop after crop.

BILL MOYERS: But the people are saying now, well, this is a good bill because the boom could go bust down the road. So we'd better build these subsidies in because farmers are always subjected to the vagaries of weather and—

DAVID BECKMANN: You know farming is a risky business. So it is appropriate to have a federally funded revenue insurance program to help farmers especially farm- small farmers deal with the risks of agriculture.

BILL MOYERS: So we get the food we eat.

DAVID BECKMANN: Right. That is an appropriate form of assistance. But the farm bill is riddled with subsidies that make no economic sense. That are not providing help to the people who really need help.

You know, right now, food prices are up. The food banks don't have enough. The food stamp program is a good program. It's right there. The federal funding for the food banks is down.

So, you know, they could put a little bit more money there. That's the fastest most direct way to reduce hunger in America. In fact, if we would do enough to just- I think if we would make it possible for food stamps- families who are already on food stamps to eat for the whole month, just doing that would be enough to cut hunger in half within a year in this country.

BILL MOYERS: Why are so many people on food stamps?

DAVID BECKMANN: Well, in this decade, we've seen an increase in poverty. So, that has driven up the participation in the food stamp program. We need a stronger food stamp program so the kids get to eat. But we also need a broader array of policies that make it easier for people to earn a living. That's a bigger topic. But we need to reverse the gradual increase of poverty that's going on. That's what's really driving the food stamp participation.

BILL MOYERS: So help me to understand how the policy makers rationalize the morality of a program by which farmers can get subsidies, even if their annual gross income is as much as two and a half million dollars.

DAVID BECKMANN: I don't hear any argument. It's naked interests.

DAVID BECKMANN: You know, lots of times, in the Mississippi River Delta, you have lots of poor people, mostly African Americans.

And then, the check comes in to the big land holders who are mostly white and affluent. Some of them live in Houston. You know, they don't even live there anymore. And over the years, the agriculture committees have attracted members of Congress who are basically beholden to their interests.

BILL MOYERS: The agricultural committee is really stacked, right?

DAVID BECKMANN: Absolutely. So it's very difficult to break that. And this year, over the last fifteen months, what we've seen is the religious community, the press, environmental groups, groups like Cato Institute, the taxpayer groups have come together to say, this is abusive.

It is- there is no rational moral argument. Now, there is really strong rational moral argument for assisting rural areas. There is real- there are problems in rural America. There are a lot of really poor people. There are farmers who are struggling.

So, there are things to be done in rural America. But the current system is not designed to help those people. It's designed to serve particular interests that are well organized. And it's got to be changed.

BILL MOYERS: There's a Danish proverb that one bag of money is worth two bags of truth. And the agri-business industry last year spent eighty million dollars on lobbying.

BILL MOYERS: And that's what Congress listens to, right?

DAVID BECKMANN: Well, both. A bag of truth is pretty powerful. And I think the abuses have been are now widely understood by American voters. So if I were a politician, either a Republican or a Democrat, I would start to distance myself from these groups. Because American voters get it. Their dollars are going to wasteful expenditures on people who don't need help. And those expenditures actually do damage.

BILL MOYERS: How many people are at risk in this country of hunger?

DAVID BECKMANN: 35 million people live in households that struggle to put food on the table. 35 million people.

And we know that for little kids, even the kind of moderate under nutrition that's characteristic of poverty in America, stunts the intellectual and personal development of those children. You know, a two year old ought to be a learning machine.

But kids who aren't getting quite enough to eat are dulled by that experience. So the damage that letting all those kids go, the damage that that hunger among children in America is doing to our future is just untold and inexcusable.

It's very fixable. You know, if very poor Chile has reduced hunger among children from something like 37 percent of their kids to 2 percent of their kids. Chile. So what about Ohio? In this country, we've sort of lost hope in making progress against hunger and poverty. But it's very doable.

I think we could cut hunger in half in America in a year. It wouldn't cost very much. And then, once we cut hunger in half, then let's deal with the other issues that can help people make a living, so they're not reliant on food assistance.

BILL MOYERS: Don't progressives in particular have to ask the question when we're talking about more money for this and more money for that. Where is that money going to come from?

DAVID BECKMANN: Right. But this is a case where we want our government to spend less money. They're spending money on-

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?

DAVID BECKMANN: They're spending money on these commodity payments to wealthy people that is not only a waste of money, but it's doing damage. Because it's doing damage to the global trading system and the poor people around the world. So we're in fact- we're a progressive group that's working with the CATO institute to try to-

BILL MOYERS: Libertarian group. Right.

DAVID BECKMANN: Right. To try to get them to reduce those payments that are doing real damage. What we want to do, Bread for the World wants to use some of that money to do good in the food stamp program, in rural development, in help for small scale farmers.

So we want to see- we're not asking for more money. We're asking for the Congress and the President to use the money that they've got to redistribute it in a way that'll do more good in the world.

BILL MOYERS: You're wearing two hats. Economist and minister. What's your answer? Your own personal answer to why we haven't made any progress.

DAVID BECKMANN: The fundamental problem is political commitment. We need leadership from the federal government so that the states and the counties and the cities and charities across the country together, we don't need to have millions of hungry kids in the USA.

BILL MOYERS: You work- your coalition works with Muslims, Jews.

DAVID BECKMANN: Muslims, Christians, everybody.

BILL MOYERS: Humanists.

DAVID BECKMANN: Everybody cares about hungry people. Well, everybody- nobody wants to see kids go hungry.

BILL MOYERS: But you're saying our system is so fouled up, it can't do the right thing?

DAVID BECKMANN: Is that a surprise?

BILL MOYERS: No, it's not.

DAVID BECKMANN: But on the other hand, what we see is that even small numbers of concerned citizens who tackle an issue like this can make a big difference in political decision making.

We may get some new direction in the farm bill by the time they wrap it up. If Congress and the President, if the two parties compromise, we'll get a better farm bill than what we've got now. It depends on whether people weigh in this month.

BILL MOYERS: David Beckmann, thank you for being with us on the Journal. We'll be watching this debate as it continues through some resolution one way or the other.

DAVID BECKMANN: Thank you very much.

BILL MOYERS: As you just heard, the showdown over the new farm policy could come next week. At the moment our own sources in Washington say the proposed new bill isn't likely to touch payments to the biggest farmers; taxpayers could still be shoveling money to them for years to come regardless of market conditions. There's also a provision to protect American sugar growers from foreign competition —so much for free trade and lower prices. And the Republican leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky —I'm not making this up - has slipped into the bill a tax break for owners of race horses. The subsidized steeplechase —shades of Marie Antoinette.

That's it for THE JOURNAL. Go to our website at pbs.org for more on the farm bill. And then join us next week, when we will report on nurses who think that what's good for Dick Cheney is good for you. I'm Bill Moyers.

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