Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said he expects efforts to reform the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program next year to focus on restricting the time that able-bodied adults without dependents can keep receiving benefits. 

Such proposals could risk alienating Democrats, but Perdue expressed confidence there would still be enough bipartisan support to enact a new farm bill. 

Perdue, making his first appearance at the National Press Club since taking office this spring, didn’t outline any specific restrictions for able-bodied adults without dependents, known by the acronym ABAWDs. 

“The American people are very generous. They’re very compassionate, and they want to help people when they are down. Most American people don’t believe if you’re able, that should be a permanent lifestyle,” Perdue said. 

He added, “One of the things you’ll see is a change regarding the ability of able-bodied adults without dependents to rely on food stamps continually.” 

Under current law, low-income ABAWDs can stay on SNAP indefinitely as long as they work at least 20 hours a week, or an average of 80 hours a month, or are participating in a job-training program. 

They cannot continue receiving benefits if they are out of work for more than three months out of every three years, unless they live in a state that has obtained a waiver from the work requirement. 

The Republican chairmen of the House and Senate Agriculture committees have indicated general support for addressing the existing work requirements but have not proposed any specifics, and they have also expressed concern about maintaining sufficient Democratic support to enact a new farm bill next year. 

Perdue predicted that the urban-rural coalition that is traditionally needed to pass farm bills will be “maintained and sustained,” even if there are new restrictions on ABAWDs.

“By and large, there are a bipartisan group of people who believe that adults without dependents should not rely on supplemental nutrition efforts from the public forever.”

Six states, plus Guam, the Virgin Islands and the District of Columbia, currently have state-wide waivers from the three-month time limit for unemployment. Twenty-seven other states have partial waivers, which are limited to economically struggling areas. 

Perdue also said he expects the administration’s SNAP reform efforts to focus on the farm bill. House Speaker Paul Ryan has pledged to push a broad welfare reform bill next year, but it would be difficult to get the 60 votes necessary for it to pass the Senate. 

Perdue announced recently that the department would be providing some unspecified waivers from existing SNAP rules to provide more local control of the program. He said some of the pending waiver requests would restrict the use of benefits for sugary products, but he suggested he was concerned about the precedent such rules would set. 

For example, other states may want to restrict the purchase of meat or GMOs, he said. “Where do you draw the line? That’s a slippery slope we’ll have to consider very carefully.”