USDA Secretary Fights Republicans in US House of Representatives Over Spending on Federal Nutrition Programs
WASHINGTON — US House Republicans squabbled with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and members of a Democratic Party committee over work requirements in federal nutrition programs as well as spending levels for those programs at a hearing Tuesday.
Republican members of the House Agriculture Committee have accused Vilsack of evading bipartisan oversight in the USDA’s 2021 revision of the Thrifty Food Plan, one of four meal plans the department is creating that ties directly into the program’s benefits. additional food aid for low-income Americans.
Republicans also criticized the “excessive” share of food spending on farmers’ bills during lengthy hearings as they lobbied for cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
The Supplemental Food Assistance Program is the predominate federal nutrition support network for low-income Americans. The program, formerly known as food stamps, cost $233 billion in 2021 and 2022 and served more than 41 million people nationwide, according to the USDA.
The USDA plan update is expected to increase food benefits by 40 cents per meal for each member. The update approved in the 2018 farm bill will also add approximately $250 billion in spending to the USDA budget over the next 10 years, according to a recent CBO report.
Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson said Vilsack and his department authorized a revision that “flipped the consensus of Congress” and left out its implications for the farm sector’s record debt and reduced social safety net.
“When parties start acting unilaterally, trust starts to erode,” Thompson said. “Unfortunately, this administration has consistently broken the consensus of Congress with a series of unilateral executive decisions that will resonate for decades to come.”
Democratic members spoke of a moral obligation to support populations in need by expanding access to the SNAP program.
They called the ministry’s redesign of the Thrifty Food Plan a long overdue update on a tool that lifts communities out of poverty and upholds democracy.
Georgia Democratic Representative David Scott, a senior member of the committee, said in his opening testimony that he was concerned about the food requirements bill introduced by Republican Dusty Johnson of South Dakota. Scott said it would jeopardize SNAP benefits for about 10.5 million people.
The bill, if passed, would require able-bodied adults without dependents between the ages of 18 and 65 to work or participate in a job training or training program for at least 20 hours a week in order to receive ongoing SNAP support.
The Johnson Act would also remove the ability for states to request a work waiver from the USDA if states don’t have enough jobs to hire applicants.
“I’m very concerned about the impact of some of the legislation on SNAP,” Scott said. “Let’s make this farm bill sing a song in the night for our veterans, our poor, those who need our help.”
Vilsack, a former governor of Iowa, said his department was “excited” to use the updated meal plan to improve food security across the country while strengthening ties between these families and the farming community.
Republicans defend expanded job rules
Republican lawmakers questioned Vilsack about the demographics of SNAP participants and raised concerns about alleged fraud and inefficient spending.
Johnson, in response to Scott’s opening statement, said that “feeding fear” about tightening SNAP job requirements will not help Americans get the help they need. He added that Scott’s comments “demonize” past bipartisan commitment to SNAP since 1996.
“Work is not a punishment, work is an opportunity,” Johnson said. “There is no way out of poverty that does not include a combination of work, education and training. And we want to support those families who need this job, this education and this training.”
Republican Rep. Austin Scott of Georgia pushed Vilsack on current levels of spending on farm commodities programs and the farm support system, which is 12% of farm spending, as opposed to about 81% spent on nutrition programs.
“I think everyone in America watching this is savvy enough to admit that food volumes, as we saw with eggs, have supply and demand issues,” Scott said. “No matter how much you give someone in SNAP benefits, the cost of groceries keeps going up due to inflation and bad politics, and then they have less food left at the end of the day.”
Tennessee Republican Rep. Scott Dejarlet asked Vilsack to give a percentage estimate of the number of “illegals” registered in the SNAP program, referring to undocumented immigrants.
“I don’t think there is anyone in this room who can’t watch the news and agree that we have a problem on our southern border with an influx of illegal immigrants,” DeJarlet said.
“I’m not sure if illegals qualify for SNAP,” Vilsack replied.
“There are about 11 exceptions to these rules that I’m sure you know about,” DeJarlet said.
“I would say that there may be exceptions to this rule,” Vilsack replied. “But for the vast, overwhelming, vast majority of those 41 million, you’re probably talking about American citizens or people who legally receive these benefits.”
“An estimated 20 to 30 million people live here illegally, and the Center for Immigration Research shows that 45% of non-citizen households receive SNAP benefits and 21% of citizen households receive SNAP benefits,” DeJarlet said, citing a group advocating a reduction in immigration rates.
“I think it’s fair to say that somewhere between 10 and 20% of SNAP benefits people get here illegally, and no one has given me the information I asked for to disprove that.”
Rep. Barry Moore of Alabama asked Vilsack if the USDA is trying to track undocumented immigrants participating in the program and why approximately 81% of farm bills go to SNAP and only 20% go to growers.
“Let me ask you a question, Congressman,” Vilsack replied. “What do you think about the fact that there are working men and women with children who require SNAP because they work for $7.50 an hour? Do you think we should increase the minimum wage?”
“No, you can’t increase the minimum wage,” Moore replied. “This does not work. When you increase the minimum wage, everything else in the economy goes up. Every time we print dollars in DC, we are actually creating inflation. And that’s the problem American farmers are facing right now.”
Democrats condemn ‘beating the poor’
Democratic members of the committee strongly opposed the SNAP cuts, saying they target the country’s vulnerable populations and access to nutritious food is a basic human right.
“I don’t know why, but when we’re going to introduce a farm bill here, we have people coming out of their homes again and beating the poor,” said Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts. “If we need a farm bill, we don’t have to mess with SNAP.”
McGovern said recent research has shown that job requirements do not positively impact program participants’ employment or income.
Connecticut Democratic Rep. Jahana Hayes said the increase in SNAP benefits as a result of the Thrifty Food Plan revision lifted nearly 2.3 million people out of poverty last year.
Rep. Jonathan Jackson of Illinois asked Vilsack about the benefits of SNAP that Congress should be aware of.
“There is evidence that clearly indicates that SNAP is one of the most effective poverty reduction programs, if not the most effective poverty reduction program we have,” Vilsack said.
Ohio Democratic Rep. Shontel Brown added that spending on SNAP should not be offset by cuts to other programs.
“It is a mistake to assume that investment in families comes at the expense of our investment in our farmers,” she said. “No one is exempt from the call to feed the hungry.”
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