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Cutting SNAP benefits is 'not the right policy' for farm bill, Agriculture Secretary Vilsack says

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack spoke in Venice, Illinois on Friday. He strongly disagrees with Rep. Glenn Thompson's proposal to cut $28 billion from SNAP, the food program for low-income Americans.
Eric Lee
St. Louis Public Radio
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack spoke in Venice, Illinois on Friday. He's not on board with Rep. Glenn Thompson's proposal to cut $28 billion from SNAP, the food program for low-income Americans.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — the food program for low-income individuals — has become one of the hottest topics in farm bill negotiations, as congressional Republicans seek more changes.

As Farm Bill negotiations hit full force in Washington D.C. in the next few weeks, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he’s not on board with making cuts to a food assistance program for lower-income Americans.

Vilsack praised Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s proposal, which outlined Democrats’ priorities for massive omnibus legislation, which is passed roughly every five years. The chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Commitee released her 94-page proposal earlier this week.

It includes maintaining a 5-year reevaluation of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

As part of debt ceiling negotiations last summer, Democrats agreed to raise the work requirement age limit for the program to 55. Some Republicans had long pushed for that, arguing increasing the age could help lift Americans out of poverty. With negotiations ramping back up ahead of the Sept. 30 deadline, some GOP congressional members want further cuts.

“It’s breaking a deal — and it’s not the right policy,” Vilsack said on Friday while visiting Venice, Illinois, a small town just outside St. Louis.

Rep. Glenn Thompson, the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, released his 5-page summary this week, which recommended $28 billion in SNAP cuts. The Republican’s proposal would nix the USDA’s five-year reevaluation, which the department last performed in 2021.

But the USDA’s Democratic secretary said Stabenow's proposal would avoid Congress having to make large increases in the future.

“It’s much better to over time adjust accordingly in small increments — so that families, who need the help, get help and appropriate help,” Vilsack said.

Initially, the 2018 Farm Bill was set to expire last September, but lawmakers extended it until this September amid stalled negotiations over other legislation.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and farm advocacy groups have said Congress needs to act on a new farm bill.

“It’s important, I think, for Congress to focus and to recognize that this has to be a practical farm bill,” Vilsack said. “This has to be not a pie in the sky, not hopes and dreams and going to give you everything you’re asking for.”

Increasing the crop support payments, called reference prices, may be an area where Republicans and Democrats agree. Many farmers have said those price points are too low, but some agricultural economists argue the program is a waste and doesn’t make a big difference in farmers’ bottom lines.

Under the current farm bill, there’s already inflation adjustments for reference prices, Vilsack noted. Both Thompson and Stabenow’s proposals advocate for increases to those reference prices.

Vilsack said he will await a lengthier proposal from the leadership of the House Agriculture Committee, which will meet later in May to vote on the first proposals. Senate committee leadership said it will vote after the House.

“It’s going to require some innovative, creative thought process, but it’s also going to have to be practical, because the folks out in the countryside are practical,” Vilsack said. “They understand you can’t do everything. You don’t have the resources to do everything.”

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.