Collaborating Across Government to Respond to Emerging Issues with Trusted Economic Information

Each year, ERS releases widely cited reports on familiar topics, such as food security and farm income, that help everyone from policymakers to consumers make better decisions related to agriculture and food. However, ERS also has another important role within USDA and the Federal government that often goes unseen.

When Government leaders, ranging from the Secretary of Agriculture to agency heads to Congress and the White House, need analysis to inform policy decisions, they frequently turn to ERS to provide trusted economic information. ERS economists then produce quick turn-around analysis that provides insight into many issues and forms the underpinnings of policy decisions. Known as “staff analysis,” these requests come not just from USDA but other Federal agencies, Congress, and the White House. In Fiscal Year (FY) 2021, ERS produced more than 500 staff analyses and briefings, providing key insights that informed major policy decisions, such as changes to the Thrifty Food Plan (TFP) and a better understanding of tax provisions in the American Families Plan.

ERS researchers closely collaborated with the USDA Food and Nutrition Service and Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion on data-driven, science-based analysis that led to changes to the TFP. The TFP is used to calculate maximum USDA Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, affecting millions of Americans. For the FY 2021 update, ERS estimated food prices and provided technical guidance on calculating the estimates. ERS also provided previous research results, new analysis, and data to address questions related to SNAP and its impact on the broader economy, food prices, and food loss. For more information, see the USDA Blog post, Economics is USDA’s Helping Science.

ERS has also long been a leader in food security research. ERS teamed up with the Office of the Secretary of Defense and U.S. Army Public Health Center to better understand the prevalence, causes, and consequences of food insecurity among active duty service members. Researchers from ERS and the Department of Defense collaborated to publish a journal article titled, “Association Between Food Insecurity, Mental Health, and Intentions to Leave the U.S. Army in a Cross-Sectional Sample of U.S. Soldiers,” in the Journal of Nutrition. ERS also released the report Food Insecurity Among Working-Age Veterans to document the extent and severity of food insecurity among this group of veterans.

ERS staff analysis requests can also serve as the basis for publication of ERS reports. For example, in 2021, the American Families Plan included a proposal regarding the treatment of capital gains taxation on inherited assets. ERS researchers analyzed the proposal to provide an understanding of the impact on family farm estates and published the analysis in an ERS report, The Effect on Family Farms of Changing Capital Gains Taxation at Death.

ERS’s 2021 Edition of Rural America at a Glance focused on how resilient rural areas were to the COVID-19 pandemic and how well they are recovering from it. In addition to rural and urban differences, the report highlights the differences between persistent poverty counties and counties that are not persistently poor.

ERS provides analysis and expertise to USDA Rural Development (USDA RD) on persistent poverty counties.  ERS was the first to define persistent poverty counties—those having a poverty rate of 20% or more over thirty years. A modified version of this definition (measured by three data points instead of four; dropping 1980) was first used by Congress and USDA to target distressed communities through a provision in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009. ERS continues to maintain data on persistent poverty counties, which is applied by Congress and USDA to various programs. USDA’s Rural Business-Cooperative Service, Rural Housing Service, and Rural Utilities Service use the modified ERS persistent poverty definition to determine program funding for regulations under the provisions of The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021.

As supply chain issues emerged related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the USDA Office of the Chief Economist (OCE) asked ERS economists to provide quick turnaround feedback on the hog industry. When hog processing bottlenecks led to increased hog price spreads and a policy change reduced maximum line processing speeds, ERS supplied analyses. In turn, these projects contributed to the COVID Working Papers: Changes in Regional Hog Slaughter During COVID-19.

ERS also responded to many requests that influenced issues related to the environment, conservation, and trade, among others. For example, ERS staff worked with OCE to provide expertise for an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report on biofuels and on many other analyses such as how to best assess gaps in conservation practice adoption data.

With respect to trade, the ERS team shared with partners at the U.S. Trade Representative and the Foreign Agricultural Service an assessment of Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) and whether they have been beneficial for developing countries, focusing solely on FTAs between the United States and its partners. Further, at the request of OCE ERS staff assessed the price impact on several U.S. commodities resulting from a hypothetical removal of China’s trade barriers.  

These are just a few examples of how ERS collaborates with Federal Government partners to provide objective, trusted analysis and information necessary to address emerging issues in agriculture, food, the environment, and rural America.  As the pandemic, climate change, competitive markets, and other issues continue to present an urgent need for information in 2022, ERS will continue to collaborate  across Government to produce trusted economic research.