As head of the Department of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack is the Obama administration’s point person on defending the food-stamp program, cut roughly 5 percent today as spending allocated in the 2009 stimulus bill expired.
With the program threatened with more reductions in a farm bill Congress is trying to approve this year, controversy over food assistance complicates his larger task: pushing lawmakers to pass a new law.
The secretary defended the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (the official name for food stamps) as an economic benefit in an interview today taped to air on C-Span’s “Newsmakers” program on Nov. 3.
“If you can buy more at the grocery store, you will buy more at the grocery store,” Vilsack said. “If you can buy more, that means the grocer has to stock more that’s been purchased and processed and trucked to their facility. All of those are jobs in the supply chain. And it also means obviously producers, farmers and ranchers and producers, have to sell more and have a market to sell more. So it has an impact.”
Commonly heard criticisms of food stamps used to justify stricter limits on eligibility — that some payments are wasteful, that subsidies go to undeserving recipients — are off-base, he said.
“These are people who are working,” he said. “But they’re working part-time job or a full-time job that just simply isn’t paying very much. And when people begin to understand the SNAP program, understand the poverty-reduction capacity of that program, understand the low error rate and fraud rate, they begin to have a better feeling about this program.”
Still, playing defense on food stamps takes away attention from what the administration would prefer to talk about in the farm bill, which expired on Sept. 30. Along with nutrition assistance that helps bottom lines at grocers including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Kroger Co., the bill also includes aid for farmers, rural development programs and food-safety funding, affecting consumers and companies ranging from crop insurer Wells Fargo & Co. to processor Archer-Daniels-Midland Co.
“If we want to talk about infrastructure, if we want to talk about jobs, if we want to talk about renewable energy, if we want to talk about trade, it’s in this bill,” he said. “If people recognize that I think people they’ll encourage their members of Congress to get this done and get this done quickly.”