Agriculture Secretary Perdue: Food stamps must go to those who truly need them – but let's cut out the waste

As Secretary of Agriculture, I am proud to work with the thousands of employees who administer the nutrition programs that provide for Americans who are most in need. However, states are taking advantage of loopholes that allow millions of people to receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, commonly known as food stamps, who would otherwise not qualify. It is my job to ensure the people who truly need food stamps receive what they’re entitled to – but the waste must stop.

Food stamps provide essential benefits to ensure folks facing the loss of a job or other difficult circumstances can put food on the table. The beauty of our system is the Federal Government delegates power to states who are closer to the people and are responsible for delivering benefits, with some discretion and flexibility in how they do so. However, too often, States have misused this flexibility and without restraint, expanded the number of people they serve.

It is our responsibility to ensure our programs are fairly delivered with integrity and to restore reasonable limits where states have inappropriately taken advantage of the rules. Americans expect their government to work for the people, by setting clear rules and protecting taxpayer dollars from fraud and abuse. The privilege of helping so many comes with a responsibility to provide assistance fairly and consistently to those who truly need and qualify for it. We also need to protect hard-earned taxpayer dollars by making sure people only receive the benefits they’re qualified for.

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One of the ways we’re maintaining program integrity is to fix a loophole that has ballooned the pool of SNAP recipients in some states, to include millionaires who could receive assistance when they clearly don’t need it. I

n fact, the depth of this specific flexibility has become so egregious that a millionaire living in Minnesota successfully enrolled in the program simply to highlight the waste of taxpayer money. It’s called “broad-based categorical eligibility” and was originally intended to streamline administrative work for states so they could quickly and easily identify families that may qualify for SNAP by meeting the requirements of similar programs. But in practice, it’s caused households who do not qualify for SNAP benefits to be deemed automatically eligible for benefits.

Our fix would restore confidence that eligibility for SNAP is consistent from state-to-state with the standards in federal law, contain costs, and better align SNAP with other means-tested programs nationwide. Our fix gives us the ability to save nearly $25 billion over 10 years so we can ensure nutrition assistance programs serve those most in need.

The loophole has also generated inconsistencies across states, with families in similar circumstances to be eligible for vastly different benefits depending on which side of the state line they live on. This outcome is unfair. SNAP benefits should not be determined by variations in State administration. Congress passes the laws and it is our responsibility at USDA to make sure they are implemented fairly and consistently irrespective of what state you live in. These benefits should go to those who need them most on a fair and consistent basis.

For these reasons we are proposing a fix to retain an automatic eligibility option, but limiting it to those who are truly in need. Going forward we will require people who receive “nominal” Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits to qualify for SNAP in the same way that everyone else must qualify.

Our fix would restore confidence that eligibility for SNAP is consistent from state-to-state with the standards in federal law, contain costs, and better align SNAP with other means-tested programs nationwide. Our fix gives us the ability to save nearly $25 billion over 10 years so we can ensure nutrition assistance programs serve those most in need.

That said, it is no secret President Trump’s policies are unleashing a historic booming economy. He’s putting people back to work and increasing wages. Last month’s employment report – showing a national unemployment rate of 3.7 percent – highlights the robust state of our economy. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates there are 7.3 million job openings in the U.S. and 6 million unemployed. There are more job openings than there are people to fill those spots thanks to President Trump’s actions to cut taxes and remove strangling regulations. And it is encouraging to see that some of the fastest wage growth in the nation is focused on those in the lower-income brackets. SNAP and other assistance programs should be geared to encourage those who can work to do so, all while providing a safety net to those who have fallen on tough times and really need it. Our job is to make sure folks have the tools they need to move away from SNAP dependency and back toward self-sufficiency.

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At USDA our motto is to “Do Right and Feed Everyone.” We are stewards of other people’s money and must be diligent in spending it more carefully than we would our own when it comes to delivering our programs. When government is more efficient, customer-focused, and fair – we are better able to deliver and provide a safety net for the Americans who need it most.

The American people expect their government to be fair, efficient, and to have integrity – just as they do in their own homes, businesses, and communities. That is why we are changing the rules, preventing those who abuse the system from being eligible, so those who need food assistance the most are the only ones who receive it.

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