”We’re taking a bold innovative approach to providing nutritious food to people who need assistance feeding themselves and their families.” — Sonny Perdue, Secretary, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, 71, is one of President Donald Trump’s oldest and last confirmed Cabinet members. He is among many other non-traditional picks, but as our former Georgia governor buckles down in his new job, I will go ahead and forecast that if, or when, this Trump Administration comes to an end, Sonny Perdue will be among the last men standing, if not the last.
Though the USDA is primarily known for building U.S. exports markets and regulating agri-business and farming, the largest portion of its budget is SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), formerly known as the Food Stamp program.
SNAP began modestly in 1933 as part of the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), and the program was initially administered by the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation. The Great Depression dramatically reduced crop prices across the country, farmers were struggling to deal with their excess supply. The federal government purchased basic farm commodities in bulk at discount prices, distributing the goods among hunger relief agencies in state and local communities. This model, with several expansions, continued in place as late as the mid-1980’s, with regular distribution of generically packaged dry milk, cheese, canned fruits and vegetables and other dry goods to economically challenged communities. And with the Food Stamps Acts of 1964 and 1977, paper currency ‘stamps’ were made available for purchasing food for qualifying households at or below the federal poverty income level.
During the most recent recession, SNAP enrollment mushroomed to more than 50-million Americans, and nearly 20 percent of American households. The resulting budget increases have been staggering, making SNAP an annual investment of nearly $71-billion, comprising by far the vast majority of the USDA’s budget.
Secretary Perdue understands both the budget concerns as well as the program drift of SNAP, including significant fraud challenges and an entrenched black market for purchasing and re-selling benefits loaded onto recipient EBT cards, which replaced physical food stamps. Though EBT card usage has been declining in many states since the recovery, on average households are remaining longer on this temporary assistance program. Secretary Perdue, himself a farmer and agri-business owner, also knows that U.S. farmers still produce excess supplies of many foodstuffs.
Perdue recently proposed shipping a box of dry goods and U.S. grown farm products to replace roughly half the amount of the current EBT cash transfer benefit. The USDA, back to its roots, would buy commodities in bulk at discounted rates, and arrange for their packaging, delivery and distribution, as they did when the program was founded. Perdue’s food box suggestion, as well as the President’s endorsement of same were immediately ridiculed by Democrats on Capitol Hill. White House Budget Director Nick Mulvaney is projecting that switching benefits in part to the Food Box will save the USDA and taxpayers as much as $130-billion over the next decade. This program change would impact any SNAP household receiving $90 or more in monthly benefits, nearly 80 percent of current recipients.
During the past year, Perdue and the FDA have also increased U.S. agricultural exports by 9 percent, following several back to back years of decline. This growth includes a 25 percent increase in exported beef and a 16 percent increase in dairy. Perdue recently met with a group of mid-west farmers, concerned about the potential impact of tariffs and a potential trade war, aimed at U.S. agricultural exports and commodities. The farmers sought guidance or assurances from Perdue on how the tariffs might impact their grains and other export commodities. Perdue, being a man of faith, and also knowing well that this President does not always seek or take counsel from his own cabinet, advised the farmers that their best short term option was to pray.
So with Vegas odds-makers taking bets on the direction of commodity prices in relation to the incoming Trump tariffs, and odds even being laid on who might be indicted and when in the ongoing Mueller investigation, I will make it again clear, though we may have but one Georgian in the middle of this administration’s cabinet, he regularly relies on prayer and a higher power to help him choose the best path. Tell the bookies that my money is on Sonny.
Bill Crane is a senior communications strategist who began his career in broadcasting and has worked at the state capitol and in Washington in both political parties. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.