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Russia plans to test US food stamp program to help its poor

October 10, 2013, 19:16 UTC+3 Zamyatina Tamara

MOSCOW, October 10 (Itar-Tass) - Several Russian regions are about to launch pilot projects of a Russian agriculture ministry’s program for food assistance to the low-income. This is a constrained measure, Minister Nikolai Fedorov said. Winter crops area might be shrunk by 19 percent because of this summer’s incessant rains. More to it, this year’s yield of the potato, the second bread, as they say in Russia, has dramatically decreased due to the same reason. Potato prices might jump up by the New Year. Experts however say the ministry’s aid program is rather vulnerable.

The Russian agriculture ministry approved the basic provisions of the food aid program back in April 2013. The program’s concept is based on similar projects existing in the United States already for more than 80 years, for instance the SNAP/Food Stamp Program, the largest nutrition assistance program administered by the United States Department of Agriculture/. In 2012, about 78 billion U.S. dollars were spent to sponsor this program, which involved 46.6 million people.

In Russia, as many as 13 percent of the entire population, or 17.7 million people, live below the poverty line, with average monthly incomes of 6,827 roubles (slightly more than 200 U.S. dollars) or less. Some 26 billion roubles will be needed to finance daily food stamps to each of these people. Theoretically, the sum is not that big. So, regional administrations were tasked to elaborate key mechanisms and regulations of the Russian version of the American relief program.

Along with providing assistance to Russia’s low-income population, the program, according to its authors, is geared to support domestic farmers in conditions of the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) tough restrictions regulating state assistance to farmers.

Some details of the prospective experiment have already been outlined. So, the daily social catering ceiling was set at about 40 roubles (about one euro) per person, and that for targeted support - at about 30 roubles.

According to the agriculture ministry’s estimates, each participant region will have to spend 195.2 million roubles (about 4.5 million euro) a year to fund the pilot food assistance project that was planned to be enforced from September 1, 2013 till August 31, 2014. But, as a matter of fact, the project was never launched from September 1, most probably, because of the lack of sufficient financing in the regions, experts say.

The food stamp system was used in the former Soviet Union during the Second World War, in the period of economic recession and after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Back then, it was a forced measure because of acute shortages of foodstuffs. Today, in the years of gastronomical plenty, many simply cannot afford a wholesome food basket.

Experts differ in their opinion of the potential advantages of the food stamp system.

Thus, Yevgeny Yasin, director of sciences at the Higher School of Economics, who was Russian’s Economics Minister in the mid-1990s, was quite sceptical about social catering stamps. “It is all futile, it’s a waste of money, an attempt to demonstrate that the government is thinking about the poor in conditions of an economic crisis. Forty roubles a day is no solution to the problems of people who live below the poverty line. This money is not enough to help them rise above this line,” he told Itar-Tass. “Government support is needed not to the poor in general, but to those who need such support due to socially exclusive reasons, for instance, families with many children.”

Yevgeny Gontmakher, deputy director of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of the World Economy and International Relations, is of an opposite opinion. “Russia must finally implement the program of food assistance to the poor,” he said in an interview with Itar-Tass. “It has been discussed for years, it is a classical global model of social support to the low-income.” The key problem concerning this program, according to Gontmakher, is to verify incomes of its participants, since more than 30 million Russians, being engaged in shadow sectors of the economy, pay no taxes as officially unemployed. “It will be very difficult to check their incomes in Moscow and other big cities, but in regions, it seems quite possible to find out who does what - there is no way of cheating on local officials,” he noted. “Of course, mistakes are inevitable and it will take time to implement this program, but the country needs it.”