Columns » Warwick Sabin

Blessed are the poor

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When President Bush sent his budget proposal to the Congress on Monday with an immediate $587 million cut in farm commodity payments, it became clearer than ever that rural Southerners have willfully abandoned their economic interests in thrall to the hypnotic allure of the moral agenda. This has been happening since the 1980s, when the Reagan White House realized that they could cut programs and attack institutions that benefited the white Southern working class by distracting it with racially coded and patriotic appeals. So was it a surprise to Arkansas farmers that they would be singled out for huge subsidy cuts that directly affect their livelihoods? “It kinda was,” replied Stanley Reed, the president of Arkansas Farm Bureau Federation. “If you look at the map of blue states and red states, you see that the farm belt has gone strong for Bush in both elections. But the first chance he has to institute cuts, that’s the first thing he looks at. We felt like we deserved a little more loyalty than that.” But the Bush Administration most likely targeted the farm subsidies precisely because he felt he could afford to burn some political capital in the rural South, which fell harder for the “God, guns, and gays” message than any other region. And the Arkansas Farm Bureau played right along, by endorsing the 2004 ballot initiative to ban gay marriage, and aligning itself closely with other conservative social initiatives. Now, after supporting Bush so enthusiastically, the Southern agriculture community is finding that his budget cuts will hit it harder than its counterparts in other parts of the nation. Besides the initial $587 million cut, the Bush budget projects a total reduction of $5.7 billion in farm aid over 10 years, which will be achieved by capping commodity production payments to individual producers. Those so-called “payment limitations” mostly affect farmers in the South who grow cotton, rice, soybeans, and other common regional crops. “Farmers are going to understand that our country can’t run a deficit,” U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said at a briefing with reporters. “We’ve got to deal with the deficit so they can have a long-term future in agriculture.” Reed counters that agriculture subsidies represent less than 1 percent of the total federal budget. He doesn’t understand why farmers — Arkansas farmers in particular — should suffer disproportionately in exchange for a minuscule improvement to the overall deficit. That is a fair point, because in the context of the Bush administration’s fiscal policy, the farm aid cuts will not cancel out either increased spending in other areas, or the reduction in revenue that will result if Bush succeeds in making his tax cuts permanent. Furthermore, the proposed budget does not even include the additional money necessary to maintain our military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the trillions of dollars that would be required to establish “personal accounts” for Social Security, assuming Bush gets his way. “The war in Iraq cost billions and billions of dollars, while at the same time we have been cutting taxes,” Reed said. “That combination doesn’t work out.” You never heard such impeccable logic from the Farm Bureau when it could have made a difference in the election. Instead, they spent their time enlisting farm communities against straw men who would take away their guns and turn their children gay. Now, with jobs and property in the balance, those issues finally seem as irrelevant as they always were. In retrospect, it seems incredible that the Farm Bureau leaders would prioritize a social agenda over the basic economic interests of farmers. For years they have acted as if their role is to preserve the conservative culture of agricultural communities, but in doing so they failed to protect the institution that made that culture possible. You don’t have to support farm subsidies to understand the larger lesson. The reckless fiscal policies of the Bush administration will have severe consequences that we are only beginning to experience. Sadly, the very people who have been taken in by Bush’s “moral values” message are the ones who eventually will suffer the most as a result of his presidency. Come the rapture, the first thing you lose is your shirt.

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