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Why Would USDA Shoot Itself in the Foot?

1 August 2018 1,352 views No Comment

Katherine Smith Evans was the administrator of USDA’s Economic Research Service from 2007–2011.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) proposed to substantially cut funding for its policy research agency, the Economic Research Service (ERS). ERS products inform far-reaching program and policy decisions in the farm, food, and related sectors—sectors that together comprise 5.5 percent of US gross domestic product (GDP), more than half the country’s land and resource base, 46 million rural Americans, and more than 40 million low-income Americans unable to afford a nutritionally adequate diet. ERS has an outsized impact by directly serving USDA programs and a broad swath of Americans.

While the House and Senate appropriations committees propose to keep ERS at its 2018 funding level in 2019, it is still useful to note that the administration proposed to throw ERS under the bus, cutting its funding by 48 percent in 2019.

You may know ERS for its food price increase projections, farm income figures, and agricultural productivity measures. But the part of its program President Trump’s administration would cut is its objective, data-driven, timely, and robust analysis—analysis that makes USDA programs more cost-effective.

ERS has served Republican and Democratic administrations equally well by documenting the economic consequences of different options for the farm, food assistance, agricultural trade, natural resource, and rural development programs the USDA runs. In so doing, it presents efficient program management alternatives.

For example, ERS developed an indexing system that helped USDA get more soil conservation for each dollar spent. This work wouldn’t be supported under the administration’s proposal.

Trade negotiators have relied heavily on ERS’ quick-turnaround analysis of particular agricultural trade scenarios to decide the best US stance on trade agreement possibilities. Again, this would be cut under the administration’s proposal.

ERS’ interactive, continuously updated Atlas of Rural and Small Town America, which measures rural areas along more than 85 dimensions, is a tool heavily used by community and business leaders to help communities thrive in the global economy. But the Trump budget directs ERS to discontinue all research and statistics related to the rural economy.

ERS’ work on the effectiveness of USDA nutrition assistance programs was highlighted as sound, fact-based evaluation by the congressionally established bipartisan Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking. ERS conducts research on access and barriers to affordable, healthy food and the consequences of limited food access on food spending, diet, and health—activities that would not be supported by the administration’s 2019 proposal. ERS conducts studies and evaluations of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), focusing on SNAP’s effectiveness in supporting income and diet quality objectives, and evaluates the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children; National School Lunch; and other food assistance programs that have guided program decisions in USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service.

But the Trump budget would explicitly “eliminate research and other data products on USDA food and nutrition assistance programs and on food consumption and nutrition, including all data resources related to food access and consumer food choices, including … Food Access Research … the SNAP Data System, Fruit and Vegetable Prices, and Price Spreads from Farm to Consumer.” The FY 2019 administration’s budget would not even support the extensive and unique Food Acquisitions and Purchases Survey conducted by ERS, which is the statistical basis for numerous studies inside and outside of USDA. No other public or private entity has or collects data that precisely connects food prices, type, and quantity of food purchases (both for consumption at and away from home); household purchasing power; and food provided via food assistance programs and food banks.

In a move that suggests a lack of knowledge about how ERS research and economic indicators rely on statistics, the administration would direct ERS to continue its work to track and project farm income, but would specifically cut $1.65 million from the Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS). The ARMS provides the basic financial accounting information from farm businesses and farm households that critically underpins sound farm income and wealth analysis.

Fortunately, Congress is not going along with this move. Agricultural appropriations leaders Sen. John Hoeven, Sen. Jeff Merkley, Rep. Robert Aderholt, and Rep. Sanford Bishop understand that ERS, with its statistical collections and subject-matter expertise, is not reproducible elsewhere.

Still, it remains a puzzle why the USDA wouldn’t want to be able to evaluate its own nutrition assistance, trade, rural development, and other critical programs. Why would it disregard the implications of trade policy for farmers, food businesses, and consumers; the state of rural Americans and institutions; and documentation of how and how well USDA programs achieve their goals? The failure to fully support the ERS is short-sighted and indicates a disregard for evidence-based policymaking in the USDA.

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