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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue endorses work requirements for food assistance

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers take questions from Eastern Washington agriculture leaders during a meeting at the Spokane Club on Monday, July 2, 2018. Perdue promised American farmers would not bear the brunt of an international trade war, but he would not say, specifically, how his USDA might assist farmers hurt by retaliatory tariffs imposed by China and other trading partners. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Congress is preparing to reconcile two versions of the farm bill, a sweeping piece of legislation renewed every five years that governs an array of agricultural and food assistance programs, including SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Once known as food stamps, SNAP helps nearly 44 million Americans – mostly children, working parents, the elderly and people with disabilities – afford a basic diet each month.

While the Senate version of the farm bill would mostly leave SNAP intact through 2023, the House version, which was backed by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, would require able-bodied adults to work or participate in a training program for 20 hours a week to receive benefits, or risk being disqualified from SNAP for up to three years.

The House version passed 213-211 with no Democratic votes. The Senate bill enjoys bipartisan support.

“The House felt very strongly – frankly, as I do – that there should be some work requirements associated with the generosity and the compassion of the American taxpayer,” U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in an interview Monday during a visit to Spokane. “If people enjoy the benefits of having food for their family … they should expect that someone that’s taking advantage of that, or utilizing that during down times, are trying to better themselves to a more independent lifestyle.”

In a statement, McMorris Rodgers called the farm bill and the work requirements “an historic effort to empower more people to build a foundation for a better life.”

Her Democratic challenger, Lisa Brown, argued the changes would primarily hurt children and other vulnerable groups.

“You’re looking at households where nearly half of them have someone with a disability and 40 percent have children,” Brown said Monday. “Adding food insecurity into these households doesn’t make sense to me.”

According to the USDA, about 15.6 million – or 12.3 percent of – American households experienced food insecurity at some point during 2016.

No Kid Hungry, a national campaign to end childhood hunger, said the House version of the farm bill would make some needed administrative improvements to SNAP, though overall it would result in tens of thousands of children losing access to food at home, as well as free lunches at school.

“Adding hurdles and punitive restrictions won’t help people find jobs or get back on their feet,” No Kid Hungry said in a statement. “But it will increase hunger and hardship for many families.”