Perdue to meet with Fudge on ABAWDs after hearing
April 3, 2019
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said today he will meet Thursday with House Agriculture Nutrition, Oversight and Department Operations Subcommittee Chairman Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, who, at a hearing today, was highly critical of the Trump administration's rule that would impose stiffer work requirements on able-bodied adults without dependents, a category of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program beneficiaries.
The rule would restrict states' ability to issue waivers that allow ABAWDs, whose benefits are already time-limited, to get benefits for longer periods of time due to employment difficulties.
Perdue told reporters after an event that it will be his "pleasure" to have breakfast with Fudge and explain the administration's reasons for issuing the rule. Fudge told reporters after the hearing that she would be meeting with USDA on Thursday, but did not mention Perdue by name. But in discussing her relations with Perdue, Fudge also told reporters, "If he thinks just being nice is going to sway me, it is not. We are going to find a way to do the people's work."
Fudge made the comments after a hearing in which the Democratic members of the subcommittee said the rule would increase hunger, while Republicans defended it as a way to encourage people to work.
Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., and other Republicans went out of their way to distance themselves from Republicans who have questioned whether many SNAP beneficiaries are really needy.
"This is a population that clearly has challenges. No one should dispute that," Johnson said. "No one is denigrating these folks. We are called to do a better job to help them. Work is a critical part of that process."
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But after the hearing, House Agriculture Committee ranking member Michael Conaway, R-Texas, and Johnson put out a news release headlined "ABAWDs deserve opportunities, not Democrat double talk."
Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., who was ranking member on the subcommittee when the Republicans controlled the House, said that the committee had never held a serious hearing on the ABAWD issue during the development of the 2018 farm bill.
But Conaway said in the release, "Leading up to the 2018 farm bill, this committee held 21 hearings on SNAP – of which, 14 were dedicated to examining the ABAWD population. For years, we've heard members on the other side of the aisle, including the chairman, complain about eligibility and the state abuses of the waiver process. We attempted to address it in the farm bill, and then were repeatedly told by Democrats that Congress didn't need to act because the administration already had the flexibility to address the problem. So, here we are with a solution proposed by USDA, and not one Democrat offered a suggestion beyond asking the secretary to withdraw this proposal. It is time Democrats stop talking out of both sides of their mouth."
Several Republican members said that House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., agreed with them that the waivers have been abused, but Fudge told reporters that, while Peterson has made statements that he is "not supportive of the way waivers have been used under certain circumstances, he did not say we should not have waivers."
The Republicans, Fudge said, "fudged it."
During the hearing, Sam Adolphsen, vice president of executive affairs at the Foundation for Government Accountability, a Naples, Fla., organization, and former chief operating officer of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, testified in favor of the rule, saying that "work requirements, when enforced, promote independence." Adolphsen said that restricting access to benefits by imposing work requirements has worked in several states.
The other witnesses said that the ABAWDs face too many challenges for the rule to be fair.
Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Foodbanks, said that the term "ABAWD – able-bodied – is a complete misnomer."
"Our findings identified elevated rates of participants with undiagnosed and untreated mental and physical limitations," Hamler-Fugitt said.
"We need empirical evidence" on ABAWDs, Hamler-Fugitt said, adding that the argument about the condition of ABAWDs has been going on since welfare reform was passed in 1996.
At the end of the hearing, Fudge said she believes USDA is making policy without the knowledge base officials need to make policy. Fudge said that ABAWDs include people who clean the congressional office buildings and prepare food that is served to members.
"If we talk to people in these situations, maybe we would have a different outcome," Fudge said.
In his closing remarks, Johnson said, "It is true that the people who clean this building every night are deserving. They are ABAWDs." Noting that there are also cafeteria workers who are ABAWDs, Johnson said, "It is important to acknowledge that they are worthy of respect."
Johnson said he believed that there was agreement on the committee and among the witnesses that policy should be evidence-based. Johnson is a freshman who was not in Congress for the development of the 2018 farm bill, but he said he is concerned that there was resistance to "data capture" Conaway championed in the farm bill.
USDA released a photo of Perdue today visiting Second Helpings, an Indianapolis-area food rescue organization that also provides culinary job training to help low-income adults find jobs in the food service industry.
"Throughout his visit, he highlighted the important role of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program's Employment and Training Program (SNAP E&T) in helping Americans in need gain skills that can lead to self-sufficiency."
The USDA rule would allow ABAWDs to receive benefits if they are in training programs, but witnesses at the hearing said there are too few employment and training programs to handle all the ABAWDs whose benefits might be denied if they cannot find employment or training.