Democrats on the Senate Agriculture Committee clashed with Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue over his plan to make it harder for states to get waivers from work requirements in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. 

The committee’s ranking member, Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., (shown above) told Perdue at a hearing Thursday that the proposed SNAP rule, issued the same day that President Donald Trump signed the new farm bill, was an “end run around the law that would leave families hungry.” 

She urged Perdue to withdraw the rule, pledging that it would face “fierce opposition” from lawmakers and anti-hunger advocates. 

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., expressed concern that the rule could deny SNAP benefits to people who can’t work because they have undiagnosed mental illnesses or other disabilities. 

“We debated and rejected some of the things you are planning to do,” Brown said. “I understand you want to put people to work. So do I,” he added. 

Perdue, who faced similar criticism on Wednesday during an appearance before the House Agriculture Committee, defended the rule as needed to push able-bodied adults without dependents into employment.

The rule would still allow states to get waivers from the work requirements “where high unemployment may occur from loss of a company or something like that,” Perdue told Gillibrand. “We do not believe that in states where employment is 4 percent that able-bodied adults should be able to stay on food assistance interminably.”

The proposed rule would overhaul the waiver process first developed by the Clinton administration after Congress overhauled SNAP and other welfare programs in 1996. Able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) are supposed to work or be in a job training program for at least 20 hours a week unless they live in an area exempted from the requirement. Without one of the waivers, ABAWDs can be out of work for only three months of every three years. 

The most significant change in the proposed rule would prevent states or areas of states from getting waivers unless their unemployment rate is at least 7 percent. That restriction, coupled with additional changes, would reduce the areas that qualify for waivers by about 75 percent, according to USDA. The restrictions would cut the cost of the program by an estimated $15 billion over 10 years. 

House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., told reporters after Wednesday’s hearing that he expected the proposed rule to be tied up in court for some time. 

Perdue provided few new details Thursday of his farm bill implementation schedule beyond what he disclosed at the House hearing. 

However, he told Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., that the Farm Service Agency would switch this year to using Risk Management Agency data for determining county crop yields under the Agriculture Risk Coverage program. ARC yields have been determined by National Agricultural Statistics Service. 

Addressing a concern raised by Stabenow, Perdue also said that FSA was going to have to undertake outreach with milk producers to sell them on the Dairy Margin Coverage program, an overhauled version of the Margin Protection Program. 

"We've got to rebrand and sell it, because this is a great program,” Perdue said. 

Photo by USDA.

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