WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump has said very little over the years about the food stamp program, which is one of America’s most important anti-poverty efforts and one that Republicans have frequently tried to cut.
On Wednesday, Trump’s secretary of agriculture strongly suggested the Trump administration has no interest in making drastic changes to the program.
“It’s been a very important, effective program,” Sonny Perdue told the House agriculture committee during a hearing. The USDA administers the food stamp program.
“As far as I’m concerned we have no proposed changes,” Perdue said. “You don’t try to fix things that aren’t broken.”
Perdue’s comments come as Republicans on Capitol Hill and in the Trump administration have floated significant cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and other programs, such as Social Security Disability Insurance, as part of an effort to balance the federal budget within 10 years.
The Trump administration won’t officially release its budget until later this month, and a spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget has said ideas for cuts described in news stories are bogus.
“The budget isn’t finished,” budget spokesman John Czwartacki said in a statement on Friday. “Rumors, leaks, and innuendo are not worth our comment ― or your coverage.”
An earlier, “skinny” version of the Trump administration’s budget released in March didn’t touch nutrition assistance and other so-called “mandatory” programs that pay benefits to anyone who’s eligible, regardless of the cost.
More than 42 million Americans receive SNAP benefits, making it the biggest safety net in the U.S. after Medicaid and the Earned Income Tax Credit. Benefits vary by state but average about $125 a month per recipient.
Perdue’s comments came in response to questions from Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), who said afterward he felt reassured. “I think it was a pretty full-throated, strong defense of SNAP and I was encouraged to hear it,” McGovern told HuffPost. “This guy could be an ally.”
Perdue also said he didn’t like the sound of banning unhealthy foods like soda and candy from what food stamp recipients are allowed to purchase. Currently benefits can be used for any food product in a grocery store except alcoholic beverages or hot meals prepared at the point of purchase. The idea of restricting benefits to healthier food is generally popular, and Republicans have proposed doing so several times.
“I probably lean more to the laissez faire than the proscriptive in that area,” Perdue said, calling it a dicey issue in light of the U.S. obesity epidemic.
Republicans in the recent past have sought to cut SNAP through the budget process but haven’t had any luck, as the agriculture committees in the House and Senate have defended their prerogative to set SNAP policy every five years as part of a farm legislation. The committees are planning to pass a new farm bill next year.
On Wednesday, HuffPost asked House agriculture committee chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas) if there was any chance the budget committee could force cost reductions in SNAP for the next fiscal year. He said he didn’t know.
“We’re lobbying for no changes to the numbers,” Conaway said. “Those guys hold our fate in their hands.”