Senate Agriculture Committee Republicans criticized USDA’s “unilateral” increase to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and warned the rising costs could make it more difficult to make other needed changes to the farm bill, during the committee’s nutrition oversight hearing on Thursday morning.

Meanwhile, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., defended USDA’s 2021 changes to the Thrifty Food Plan as authorized in the 2018 farm bill and said SNAP funding levels won’t impact commodity assistance as the committee begins its work on the 2023 farm bill.

Citing the Congressional Budget Office baseline update released Wednesday projecting an 8% increase in SNAP spending due in large part to the TFP recalculation, Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member John Boozman, R-Ark., said the U.S. government will spend more on SNAP in the next 10 years than the previous two decades combined. Since the last farm bill, the cost of the largest nutrition program SNAP has grown by more than 94% from $65 million annually in 2018 to an expected $127 billion in 2023.

“When one program constitutes more than 80% of the spending in the next farm bill, and thereby effectively crowds out the ability to make crucial investments in every other title, is there really any room left for farmers in the traditional farm bill coalition?” Boozman asked rhetorically in his opening statement. He also concluded the hearing with similar sentiments.

Boozman added he believes the surging costs of SNAP will “really limit our ability to help other programs, which I desperately want to do.” 

Stabenow said she and her Democratic colleagues differ in how to approach the total farm bill spending and an increase in one title of the farm bill does not require decreases in another.

Speaking with reporters after the hearing, Stabenow argued the farm bill offers both “a farm safety net and a family safety net."

She said she supports both safety nets and believes both are needed. "What we do in each area does not give us more or less money in the other area. It's completely separate in terms of how it is accounted,” she said. 

Stacy Dean, USDA's deputy undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, came under fire from many Republican members who questioned her about the agency’s 21% increase in the TFP, which is used to calculate SNAP benefits.

Several Republican members noted that the increases will push total farm bill costs to $1.2 trillion, and the TFP update added nearly a quarter trillion dollars to the estimated farm bill baseline from 2018.

Boozman recognized the “pandemic and inflation drove some of these cost increases but let there be no doubt that the largest driver was a decision by the leadership,” at FNS.

Stabenow noted the average SNAP benefit is only about $6 per person per day for all of their meals combined. The TFP update increased the average SNAP benefit by less than $2 per day, she explained.

Dean defended the process by which USDA updated TFP. She said it was done within the 2018 farm bill’s intended congressional direction and added approximately 40 cents per person per meal.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said Congress “would certainly want to consider in the next farm bill” requiring consultation between USDA and Congress if the next TFP reevaluation could increase costs to the dramatic level it did in the last update. 

Dean did say the agency “learned a lot about the process,” which was criticized by the Government Accountability Office in a December report that found fault in how USDA established the increase. Dean noted the agency will be “eager to consult with [Congress]” in response to a question from Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., about providing more data ahead of any changes in SNAP benefits in future reevaluations.

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Another key talking point for Republicans was encouraging language for able-bodied adults without dependents, also identified as ABAWDs, to not see SNAP participation as a disincentive to return to the workforce.

Boozman noted there are more than 11 million job openings across the country, equivalent to nearly two job openings for every unemployed person. Approximately 5 million plus job openings are in 25 states and territories that are not enforcing work requirements.

Dean said work requirements were lifted during the public health emergency for the COVID-19 pandemic, and at the end of May work requirements will be reinstated. The White House has announced plans to end the public health emergency in May.

Dean says it is important to ensure the work requirements are reconfigured to “encourage work and not increase food insecurity.”

But Stabenow also argued efforts to encourage employment training should not be set up as a barrier to people directing help in getting healthy food through SNAP participation.

In her opening comments, Stabenow cited language in the 2018 farm bill, when Congress “expanded opportunities and partnerships through the SNAP Employment and Training Program, including increased funding, new public-private partnership options, and adding evidence-based comprehensive case management and supervised job search components to E&T.”

Dean said there are a number of SNAP participants who are unemployed or underemployed, and although not all SNAP participants are qualified for the open jobs, many recipients are. And through certain training, beneficiaries “could go from being a SNAP participant who's unemployed to someone who is employed,” Dean said.

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