World: A ‘Harvest Box’ for low-income Americans? not anytime soon, officials say

President Donald Trump hosts a meeting with state and local officials about his infrastructure initiative in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, Feb. 12, 2018. From left: New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez; Trump; Mayor George Flaggs Jr. of Vicksburg, Miss.; and Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program offers about 46 million low-income Americans both sustenance and economic choice by providing an allowance to buy the fruit, meat, fresh vegetables, soda, ice cream and kind of bread they want to eat.

But on Monday, the Trump administration sprung a surprise: Under a proposal in the president’s budget many participants in the program would be given half their benefits in the form of a “Harvest Box” full of food preselected for nutritional value and economic benefit to American farmers.

The cache of cheaper peanut butter, canned goods, pasta, cereal, “shelf stable” milk and other products would now be selected by the federal government, not by the people actually eating it.

The proposal seemed like a radical overhaul of the country’s core food assistance program — once called food stamps but now commonly known as SNAP. The idea was to shave about $21 billion a year from the federal deficit over the next 10 years. But the reaction was immediate, and largely negative.

Democrats claimed the plan shackled the poor while business groups, led by big food retailers, would stand to lose billions of dollars in lost SNAP business. The head of one trade association typically supportive of President Donald Trump’s economic policies accused the administration of reneging on its pledge to cut “red tape and regulations.”

In reality, administration officials on Tuesday admitted that the food-box plan — which the president’s budget director Mick Mulvaney compared to the Blue Apron grocery delivery service — had virtually no chance of being implemented anytime soon.

Instead, the idea, according to two administration officials who worked on the proposal, was a political gambit by fiscal hawks in the administration aimed at sparking outrage among liberals and stirring up members of the president’s own party working on the latest version of the farm bill. The move, they said, was intended to lay down a marker that the administration is serious about pressing for about $85 billion in other cuts to food assistance programs that will be achieved, in part, by imposing strict new work requirements on recipients.

“I don’t think there’s really any support for their box plan. And, I worry that it’s a distraction from the budget’s proposal to cut SNAP by some 30 percent. That’s the real battle.” said Stacy Dean, vice president for food assistance policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive Washington think tank. “The danger are these other proposals to cut benefits. But all anyone is talking about today are the boxes.”

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the ranking Democrat on the agriculture committee, doubted the motives behind the plan.

“This isn’t a serious proposal and is clearly meant to be a distraction,” Stabenow said.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue stealthily pitched the idea over the last few weeks to the White House’s Domestic Policy Council as a novel way to reach the administration’s self-imposed goal of slashing federal food assistance programs by $214 billion over the next decade. It was quickly embraced by Mulvaney, a fiscal hawk who is seeking to steer a debate increasingly dominated by free-spending Republicans and Trump, who has insisted on major budget increases for the Pentagon and Homeland Security.

Neither man had any illusions that the plan would be immediately embraced by congressional Republicans, who were not given advance notice of the proposal, the officials said.

That the food-box approach has been tried only in small demonstration projects and never been seriously discussed during dozens of congressional hearings on the SNAP program in recent years did not stop administration officials from putting the force of Trump’s presidency behind it.

The budget documents released on Monday omitted other important details, including the real costs of creating a nationwide distribution network for the boxes, especially in rural areas hard hit by the economic downturn and the opioid crisis.

“We have had like 25 hearings on SNAP. The witness list was controlled by Republicans, and this idea was never, ever broached,” said Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat on the House subcommittee that oversees federal food assistance programs. “I think it’s dead on arrival — I hope it is — but either way it’s a cruel joke. My God, these people are awful. In addition to being totally misinformed on policy, they are really just not nice people.”

In a statement, Perdue defended the proposal as humane and cost effective, saying his plan offered the “same level of food value” provided by the SNAP program, which replaced the food stamp program in the late 1990s.

He described the boxes as “a bold, innovative approach to providing nutritious food to people who need assistance feeding themselves and their families — and all of it is grown by American farmers and producers.”

Still, the idea landed with a thud. It was quickly dismissed by two Republican committee chairmen, Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, who leads the Senate agriculture committee, and his counterpart in the House, Rep. K. Michael Conaway of Texas.

Conaway is drafting a farm bill that is expected to slash billions in spending in the SNAP program through the tightening of some eligibility requirements. Roberts is overseeing an effort to craft a version of the bill that is expected to include fewer cuts in hopes of gaining the bipartisan support needed to push the measure through the Senate.

SNAP, like many other safety net programs, is designed to expand during hard economic times and contract when the economy improves. Nonetheless, the program’s rolls have remained at historically elevated levels, reaching a peak of 47.8 million recipients in 2012 before edging down to 45.6 million last year, according to federal estimates.

Perdue, in particular, has been outspoken in his call to reduce its rolls, criticizing what he calls a culture of dependency among SNAP recipients.

But McGovern said the administration was painting “a distorted picture” of the poor and ignoring the fact that most SNAP recipients are employed and more than a quarter are disabled and unable to seek work.

“They have to stop playing to the cheap seats,” he said. “The majority of people in the program are children and seniors and people working in jobs that pay too little to feed their families.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

GLENN THRUSH © 2018 The New York Times

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