Food-stamp changes are about getting people back to work not kicking them out, says USDA chief

Key Points
  • The Trump administration changed food-stamp requirements to "increase employment," not simply remove people from the program, says Sonny Perdue.
  • "We've got more jobs based on ... Trump's economy than we've got people to apply for them," says the Agriculture secretary.
  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture rule change could impact up to 755,000 people who receive SNAP benefits, commonly referred to as food stamps.
Ag secretary: Food stamp changes not about kicking people off program

The Trump administration changed food-stamp requirements because it wants people to find jobs, not simply remove people from the program, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue told CNBC on Wednesday.

"What we want to do is increase employment. We need these people in the workforce," Perdue said on "Squawk Box."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Wednesday approved a rule change, first proposed in February, that limits the ability of states to grant work waivers for single, able-bodied adults enrolled in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly referred to as food stamps.

The change is expected to remove up to 755,000 people from the program. In 2018, there were 2.9 million single, able-bodied working adults who received SNAP benefits, according to the USDA. Nearly three-quarters were not employed.

Under the existing law, single, able-bodied adults cannot receive food-stamp benefits for more than three months within a three-year period, unless they work, volunteer or are in job training programs for 80 hours a month.

But following the 2008 recession and the uneven recovery that ensued, some states were granting waivers to make sure people could have access to food-stamp benefits.

In 2011, 87% of the U.S. population lived in an area covered by the waivers. In 2017, that figure was around 37%.

Perdue argued Wednesday that the state of the economy under President Donald Trump has made those waivers unnecessary.

"We've got more jobs based on ... Trump's economy than we've got people to apply for them," Perdue said. "We're going back to the original congressional intent."

The national unemployment rate in October was around 50-year lows at 3.6%. Vermont has the lowest, at 2.2%, while Alaska's unemployment rate is the highest, at 6.2%.

The rule implemented Wednesday is one of three changes to SNAP proposed by the Trump administration. A study released last month by the Urban Institute argues that 3.7 million people would lose food-stamp benefits if all three went into effect.

Craig Gundersen, an University of Illinois professor of agricultural and consumer economics, told NPR in April that there was no evidence to suggest that food-stamp benefits are a disincentive to keep people from working.

"This idea that people are ripping off the system or something, that's just not true," he told NPR.

While Perdue said he understands it can be hard to begin working after a long time out of the labor force, the former Georgia governor said, "We're trying to help these people get back into personal dignity of work and become part of the productive economy of the United States."

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on the changes he's making to SNAP program