Perdue: We Won’t Let You Go Hungry But There Are Limits

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who runs the federal farm subsidy and public nutrition programs, told a Montana audience that “my goal is to have a safety net for all American citizens, producers, but also those who cannot afford (food) … It is not in the heart of America to want to see anyone go hungry.”

Speaking at the Montana Ag Summit in Great Falls, Perdue said spending cuts are necessary to get the federal debt under control. For the coming fiscal year, President Trump has proposed a $193 billion cut – 25% – in food stamp spending over 10 years, a 36% cut in crop insurance, elimination of the major U.S. food aid program, a scaling back of land stewardship programs, and the elimination of many rural development programs.

Neither farm subsidies nor food stamps are intended as a permanent support, said Perdue. “Just as we don’t want everybody on a permanent status on food stamps, we don’t want to become dependent,” said Perdue to the farm conference.

“It is not in the heart of America to want to see anyone go hungry. And we don’t want to see that happen,” Perdue said a few minutes into a 16-minute speech. “Americans are compassionate, and the USDA will be compassionate as we administer that program (food stamps). You know, on the other hand, I don’t think it ought to be a permanent lifestyle, either. It ought to be a hand up and a help out to do that,” said Perdue to applause from his listeners.

Perdue’s remarks about Americans not wanting their neighbors to go hungry were a contrast to Representative Adrian Smith, who represents a largely rural district in Nebraska. During an NPR interview, the Republican replied nutrition “is very important” when asked, “Is every American entitled to eat?” Along with food stamps, “there are a number of ways that we could address that,” said Smith. He did not respond directly to a question if he would vote for a budget that cut food stamps. “I look for there to be a lot of changes made in the House and Senate to the president’s budget,” said the sixth-term lawmaker.

Trump’s proposed budget for the fiscal year opening on October 1 would cut food stamps “through a massive cost shift to states, cutting eligibility for millions of households, and reducing benefits for hundreds of thousands more,” said the think tank Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “The unemployed, the elderly, and low-income working families with children would bear the brunt of the cuts.”

The proposed budget would tighten the time limit on food stamps for able-bodied adults without dependents and would deny food stamps to many households, now eligible due to a welfare-reform provision, who have larger assets than usually allowed but also high housing and child care expenses. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said 1 million people would be affected by the stricter time limit, and an estimated 1 million households would be affected by the change in so-called categorical eligibility. The Trump budget would require states to pay 25% of benefits but also allow them to reduce the benefit per person.

Some 42.3 million people received food stamps at latest count.

The Trump budget also would limit the availability of federal subsidies to lower the cost of crop insurance. The government pays an average 62¢ of each $1 in premium at present. There would be no premium subsidies for revenue policies that include the harvest price option, popular among farmers. This option pays indemnities at the harvesttime price for a crop if it is higher than the guarantee offered when policies were purchased in the spring. Critics say the option can result in windfall payments.

“Insurance is insurance. Crop insurance is a safety net,” said Perdue, to offset flood, hail, disease, or catastrophically low prices, rather than a routine source of revenue.

In saying that federal spending must be cut, Perdue, born to a Georgia farm family, said farmers are skilled in adjusting to the boom-and-bust cycle of agriculture. “I would trust the U.S. farming community better than anyone else to absorb what our needs are budgetarially … We’re going to make sure it’s a budget we can live with but also one that contributes to the vitality, economic prosperity of not only our generation but also generations to come.”

During a panel discussion with Senate Agriculture chairman Pat Roberts and Montana Senator Steve Daines, Perdue listed a handful of trade issues with China, including delays in approval of new strains of GE crops. Eight requests are pending. Without Chinese approval, crops grown from those seeds cannot be sold to China.

“The president is very, very serious about evening up the balance of trade,” said Perdue. “We think China needs to buy more.” China is the No. 1 market for U.S. farm exports, forecast to buy $22.3 billion of U.S. products this fiscal year while shipping $4.3 million of its ag exports to U.S. buyers. Overall, China runs a large trade surplus with the U.S.