WASHINGTON, Sept. 17, 2014 – USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack used what was probably the last full House Agriculture Committee hearing of the 113th Congress to vow vigilance over pilot programs designed to help recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) find and keep good jobs.

Vilsack’s focus was on 10 separate three-year pilot programs, funded with $200 million under the 2014 Farm Bill, designed to heighten job education and training efforts for SNAP recipients. Last year, the government spent about $80 billion on SNAP, doling out benefits -- formerly called food stamps -- to about 47 million Americans each month. SNAP spending accounts for more than half of USDA’s annual budget.

Since applications for the pilot programs only began to be accepted by USDA on Aug. 25, some committee Democrats complained Wednesday’s hearing was premature – but Vilsack used it as an opportunity to pledge solid stewardship of the new initiatives.

“We are looking for a broad range of ways and strategies,” he said. “We are anxious to use these programs to identify best practices. Because there’s just a handful of states today that are doing these things well. We need all 50 states to do it.”

Vilsack said some state officials involved in current education and training efforts under SNAP underuse available federal funds. To that end, the former Iowa governor said he has been personally calling governors in those states to make sure those funds are put to use.

USDA plans a Web seminar to increase awareness of the new pilot projects, with applications from states accepted until November and awards decided in February.

One new program is aimed at 5 million Americans who are considered “able-bodied adults without dependents,” who are capable of working but are not in the workforce for some reason. Both voluntary and mandatory participation in education and training programs would be increased, with the results measured in both urban and rural settings, Vilsack said.

A handful of Republicans took gentle swipes at the SNAP program, complaining of specific cases of fraud or abuse, but most GOP committee members held their fire.

“I have great faith in the amazing laboratories that are the states of this union, and I just have great expectations for what they will accomplish,” Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., told Vilsack. “That’s the spirit – ‘think outside the box.’“

Vilsack appeared before the committee just days before the House will recess for the November election. Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., said no other full committee meetings are scheduled even though the House will meet for two weeks later in November and another two weeks in December. The Subcommittee on Conservation, Energy and Forestry will meet Thursday and a representative from the Oklahoma Conservation Commission is scheduled to testify.


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