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Sonny Perdue takes lead role selling food stamp work requirements


Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has emerged as one of the top salesmen of a Republican farm policy package that would tighten work requirements for food stamp recipients. 

The former Georgia governor has quietly met with House GOP leaders on Capitol Hill in recent days, helping them strategize how to sell the $867 billion measure to skeptical colleagues. And he huddled with President Donald Trump and the Republican chairmen of the House and Senate Agriculture committees on Thursday in the Oval Office to further discuss their approach moving forward.

Perdue has voiced support for the most divisive portion of the House GOP’s farm bill: a requirement that most able-bodied adults under 60, including the parents of children older than 6, work at least 20 hours a week or participate in a job training program to receive sustained benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. SNAP currently has work requirements in place for able-bodied people under 50 without dependents, but many states have waivers that critics say has made the rules essentially ineffective. 

A spokesman for Perdue declined to discuss the specifics of the secretary’s work to pass the bill, but the Republican previously said work requirements are “reasonable.” 

SNAP “was not meant to be a long-term type of program that one didn’t get off of,” Perdue told reporters during a trip to Michigan last month. “It was supposed to be a hand-up… and I think the current proposal that the House Republicans have had is trying to lift people out of dependency to a job and to a workforce so that they can become productive citizens.”

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House Democrats are completely opposed to the legislation, which GOP leaders hope to bring up for a floor vote next week. They frame the proposed work requirements as cruel, racially-motivated and nearly impossible to administer. 

“This bill takes 1.6 million needy families off of the SNAP program,” said Atlanta Democrat David Scott, a senior member of the House Agriculture Committee. “Why? A work program that you manifest and walk around and say able-bodied men or able-bodied people should work and not be on food stamps.” 

“You know what you are really saying with that? The image of able-bodied men not working is the image of African American men not working in the minds of people out there who have this mental disposition,” Scott said last month. 

Democrats are backed by many anti-poverty groups, as well as food banks that worry the changes will create an overwhelming demand of their services. They came to Capitol Hill earlier this week to lobby against the bill. 

House Republican leaders think they can pass the measure with only GOP votes, but they must first win over a group of deeply conservative lawmakers from the House Freedom Caucus. Members have voiced concern that the SNAP changes aren’t strict enough, and some want a major overhaul of crop subsidy programs too. 

One of those undecided lawmakers is U.S. Rep. Jody Hice of Monroe. The second-term Republican said Wednesday he is “looking to get to a yes” on the bill but that he wants to see stricter requirements for SNAP. 

Among the GOP lawmakers working alongside Perdue and committee leaders to persuade on-the-fence colleagues is U.S. Rep. Austin Scott of Tifton, a member of the House Agriculture Committee.

“It’s better than what we currently have. It’s better than an extension,” Scott said Thursday, summarizing his pitch to skeptical Republicans. “And in the end you’ve got to do what you can, when you can, how you can and this is where we are.” 

The measure does not include a divisive proposal championed by Perdue that would replace roughly half of families’ food stamp money with a “harvest box” of nonperishable foods. 

The Senate must pass its own version of the farm bill the in the months ahead, but it’s not expected to make major changes to SNAP because of the chamber’s filibuster rules. 

The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week that Trump is likely to threaten to veto any bill that doesn’t include stricter work requirements for the program, setting up an election year battle over the social safety net. Current agriculture and farm programs expire on Sept. 30.

Food stamps serve roughly 40 million people each month, including roughly 1.6 million Georgians. The state has seen a significant drop in the number of people receiving benefits due in part to an improving economy. 

Georgia has also rolled out its own food stamp work requirements in recent years for non-disabled adults without kids. That program is now operating in two-dozen counties, including several in metro Atlanta. The plan is to expand to all 159 counties by 2019.


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About the Author

Tamar Hallerman is The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Washington correspondent, covering Congress, federal agencies and other government activities that impact Georgia.