Sonny Perdue signals he's open to major food stamp changes

WASHINGTON -- Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on Tuesday hinted that vast changes to federal food stamps, one of the biggest safety net programs under his purview, could be on the way.

The former Georgia governor said the purpose of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, was to help needy people pay for their groceries on a temporary basis -- not permanently. He signaled that the program should be refocused to help people transition back to "self sufficiency and self reliance."

“The American people are very generous,” Perdue said in a speech at the National Press Club. “They’re very compassionate and they want to help people when they’re down. I think most American people don’t believe if you’re able that (it) should be a permanent lifestyle, so I think one of the things that you’ll see probably is a change regarding the ability for able-bodied, working adults or adults without dependents to rely on food stamps continually.”



Perdue's comments were some of his most direct about the changes to welfare programs that the Trump administration and congressional Republicans could pursue in the months ahead, not only to food stamps but potentially Medicaid and federal housing benefits.

Last week, Perdue's Agriculture Department issued a vague news release announcing plans for "increased cooperation" with states regarding the administration of SNAP.

Many saw the move as the Trump administration cracking the door open for drug testing recipients or enacting stricter work requirements.

"We want states to have the flexibility to structure their program to provide the best customer service and delivery to SNAP self-nutrition to maintain the integrity of the system by reducing fraud and ultimately help families to grow stronger and more self-reliant," Perdue said Tuesday. He said it was "speculative" to discuss any specific changes that could be on the way.

Critics say allegations of fraud are overblown -- the current trafficking rate is roughly 1 percent, and more than half of participants are kids, elderly and disabled people who need the help. They argue  food stamp regulations unfairly target the poor.

The potential changes could have major implications on Georgia's long-frozen push to require drug tests for some welfare recipients.

The state Legislature and Gov. Nathan Deal cleared the changes, some of the toughest in the country, in 2014. But it was promptly tied up by Obama administration officials who contended it violated federal law, as well as an Atlanta federal court that struck down similar legislation in Florida.

About 1.6 million Georgians, or about 15 percent of the state population, receive food stamps. The number has declined in recent years as the economy has lifted, but it's still far from pre-recession levels.

The state, meanwhile, has been gradually rolling out some work requirements for recipients. Two-dozen Georgia counties, including several in the Atlanta, now limit unemployed adults between 18 and 49 without dependents or disabilities to three months of food stamps 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. The plan is to include all 159 counties by 2019.

IN DEPTH: Battle over food stamps highlights polarizing rift in Georgia 

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About the Author

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