WASHINGTON, March 2, 2016 - Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack used his address this week to the 2016 National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference to sharply criticize GOP lawmakers who are rallying behind drug testing for Americans who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.
“The stated reason is that ‘We’re compassionate, we want to help,’” Vilsack said of the Republicans in support of drug testing. “Really? That’s the reason? Because if that were the reason, Congress would be appropriating right now additional resources to deal with the tremendous gap in services for mental health and substance abuse,” Vilsack said.
“Folks, we have to… call these people on this notion. We have to say, ‘Don’t tell us this is how to show compassion,” he said.
Out of the $111.9 billion requested for USDA nutrition programs in President Barack Obama’s proposed budget for fiscal 2017, about $88 billion would go to SNAP. In 2017, USDA expects SNAP will serve about 44.5 million people, about 80 percent of whom are senior citizens, disabled, in the workforce, or children.
Congressional Republicans have long called for budget cuts to USDA nutrition programs and SNAP has consistently been among their top priorities for reforms.
Since the start of 2015, the House Agriculture Committee has held at least 10 hearings on SNAP. Top Republicans, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., have advocated for block-granting SNAP, which would give states significantly more flexibility – and less accountability, Vilsack said – in how they spend federal SNAP dollars.
And a few weeks ago, Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., the chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, introduced a bill that would allow states to drug test SNAP recipients and revoke eligibility for the program based on the results.
The bill – H.R. 4540 – would keep the federal government from “enabling people to fund their drug addiction at taxpayer expense,” Aderholt says, and would add “a compassionate tone” to drug testing by allowing states to utilize a nationwide pool of $600 million annually for the drug treatment of SNAP recipients. The bill’s cosponsors are all Republicans: Mark Meadows of North Carolina, Mo Brooks of Alabama, Kevin Cramer of North Dakota and Andy Harris of Maryland.
Aderholt said after his panel met last Monday that he’d “like to see states” require those who test positive for drug use to go through drug treatment and once again be eligible for SNAP. But in his legislation, there is no mandate for states to use any federal funding for drug treatment, or to allow previously ineligible people to re-enroll in SNAP.
Based on USDA regulations and current drug testing law – most of which was established by Congress in 1996 – only Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) recipients and SNAP beneficiaries that have prior drug felony convictions can be tested for drugs without probable cause.
Vilsack blamed Congress’ willingness to embrace drug-testing regulations for food assistance on “think tanks,” which he said “pore over statistics and data” on programs like SNAP.
“I for one am tired of the conversation in this country that seems to divide those that struggle from those who have succeeded,” he said. “We are a healthier, stronger, better nation, a more compassionate nation, because we have programs like SNAP.”
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