Feds eye new food stamp changes

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, led by former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, is signaling it’s open to making changes to how it handles aspects of its food stamp program. 

The department will announce Friday that it’s soliciting public input for how it administers the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, to able-bodied people without children, a proposition that is likely to draw scrutiny from advocates for the poor. 

The feds will not put forward any specific proposals on Friday, but plan to seek comment from the public, local governments and other stakeholder groups for the next 45 days. From there the department will analyze the responses and potentially move forward with a draft federal rulemaking later, said Brandon Lipps, administrator of the department’s Food and Nutrition Service.

“There’s been a lot of conversation (about) this population for a number of years and the administration thinks that it’s time to have a conversation on moving the ball forward on how to help this population move to self-sufficiency,” Lipps told reporters Thursday.  

Able-bodied people without children make up about 9 percent of SNAP recipients, according to Lipps. 

The Agriculture Department already has rules in place that limit childless people without disabilities to three months of SNAP benefits in any three-year period unless they’re working at part-time. But many states have waivers in place. 

“A lot of these folks are stuck in poverty for a number of years and we think that we have a duty to them and to the taxpayer to better serve them and move them back into self-sufficiency,” Lipps said.  

Georgia over the last two years has rolled out work requirements for able-bodied food stamp recipients in two-dozen counties, including several in metro Atlanta. The state plans to incorporate all 159 counties by 2019. 

Under that program, people are limited to three months of food stamp assistance within a three-year period. They can continue the program if they find a job or are enrolled in a job-training or community service program for at least 20 hours a week.

That program, coupled with the improving economy, has led to a significant decline in the number of Georgians on food stamps, as well as a broader debate over the appropriate scope of federal welfare programs

Perdue’s department is tasked with signing off on any state-level changes to SNAP. The Republican previously suggested he was open to approving more creative or ambitious efforts to tighten eligibility requirements. He also championed a divisive proposal to replace roughly half of SNAP benefits with a “harvest box” of federally picked foods.  

The latest federal budget request proposed slashing the program by roughly 30 percent, reducing the SNAP budget by about $213 billion over a decade. 

Congress would need to approve any funding changes to food stamps -- a steep climb politically -- but at least some House Republicans have been clear they are looking to make major changes in the upcoming farm policy bill. 

The Agriculture Department’s solicitation for public comment comes a day after Wisconsin’s Legislature approved one of the country’s strictest food stamp eligibility policies. Championed by the state’s Republican Gov. Scott Walker, the proposal would boost work requirements for able-bodied SNAP recipients from 20 to 30 hours a week and for the first time require the parents of school-aged children to work or be in job training to receive the benefits. 

Perdue wouldn’t say on Thursday whether he would approve of Wisconsin’s proposed changes. But he told reporters that he broadly supports the concept of states being a “laboratory” of ideas and that food stamps should be a “transition for people who are in a tough situation,” not a permanent lifestyle. 

“We’re trying to provide a ramp upward for independence into a job that would be, frankly, much more productive, much more profitable, much more beneficial for the families that are being served than not,” he said on the sidelines of a federal agriculture conference. 

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