What the fiscal cliff would mean for our cities and food
Over the last several weeks of fiscal-cliff frenzy, we’ve heard a lot about taxes, taxes, taxes. It’s apocalypse now-ish! With only 10 days left before we go careening off that cliff, President Obama and congressional leaders are trying (so they say!) to stop the crazy train that they set rolling in the first place.
Atlantic Cities warns of the horrors awaiting us in the ravine below: big cuts for transportation and urban infrastructure, from housing to roads. The Section 8 low-income housing program and Community Services Block Grants could be slashed, as well as assistance for the homeless, which would mean hard times for the poor plus local layoffs.
The thing that makes all of this so troubling is that direct federal funds make up only a fraction of a city’s budget. Much more money comes from state governments. Maryland, for example, stands to lose $100 million if the government goes over the fiscal cliff.
And without clarity on just how the federal government will try to plug up its debt, states are struggling to create a road map for their own infrastructure efforts.
Even if the fiscal cliff doesn’t come to pass, all this uncertainty will likely have a long-term impact. “Cities and metros are getting the picture that the federal government is not a reliable partner,” says Bruce Katz, vice president at the Brookings Institution and founding Director of the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program.
Today the National League of Cities released a statement saying, “Local elected officials have been at turns appalled, stunned, and dismayed, at what is passing for ‘serious debate and negotiation’” around the fiscal cliff.
Meanwhile, leaders from states that stand to benefit from a new Farm Bill are urging Congress to summarily lump it into the last-minute budget agreement. That would affect food stamps, big ag subsidies, and a lot more. The Atlantic details some of the less-discussed risks of a last-minute Farm Bill:
Attached to the House Agriculture Committee’s draft bill, for example, are a handful of riders that should sound alarm bells for anyone who cares about healthy food. A series of amendments were approved by the committee and included in its bill to strengthen the already enormous powers that the industrial agriculture complex wields over the food system.
Those amendments include restrictions on states’ abilities to regulate agriculture, such as in animal-welfare initiatives; weakened pesticide regulation; weakened anti-monopoly regulation; and fast-tracking USDA approval for genetically modified crops.
Bonus: The current Farm Bill also includes $6 billion in cuts to conservation programs. From the Environmental Working Group:
Industrial agriculture — not manufacturing, gas drilling or mining — is the largest contributor to America’s water pollution problem. And despite the high cost to taxpayers and businesses, most farm operations are exempt from the federal Clean Water Act. State governments, meanwhile, have little authority to compel farmers to control soil, pesticides and chemical fertilizers that flow off their fields and into water supplies. This leaves the farm bill’s current conservation programs — the ones slated for deep cuts — as the only line of defense.
Land protected under conservation programs is also particularly effective at fighting climate change because it keeps large amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere. The carbon that would be released as a result of the likely conservation cuts in a fiscal cliff cum secret farm bill could equal the annual emissions of two million passenger vehicles.
To make things worse, the centerpiece of such a bill would almost surely be lavish new subsidies for bloated crop insurance policies, which already allow some farmers to turn a profit by plowing up and cultivating poor and environmentally sensitive land on an industrial scale, pumping still more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Super double-point bonus: The bill’s cuts to the already arguably underfunded Food and Drug Administration could also jeopardize food safety. Food Safety News reports:
“The Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, which has a central role in implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act, has had the same permanent [full-time equivalent] staffing level as it did in 1992, before the explosion of imports, before the overall growth in the complexity and size that we see in the food system, even before FSMA was enacted,” [FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods Michael Taylor] said. “We need to beef up the staffing at CFSAN and other parts of the program, so anything that forces us backward — you can just imagine the effect that it would have.”
Also, if we do careen off the cliff and into the Farm Bill ravine, milk prices could double (not that you need milk anyway).
So with 10 days left, what are you hoping for from Fiscal Cliffsmas: Five golden rings to help fund low-income housing, or maybe just a partridge in an organic, pesticide-free pear tree?
Susie Cagle writes and draws news for Grist. She also writes and draws tweets for
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