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Donald Trump and Sonny Perdue’s USDA Made the COVID-19 Hunger Crisis Worse

This column is the first in a three-part series on the USDA’s coronavirus response. The second installment will examine the policies and stakeholders that Secretary Perdue prioritized over a strong COVID-19 anti-hunger plan. The third will explore the future of programs such as SNAP under Secretary Perdue and the underlying racism of his form of governance.

Because of the economic recession spurred by the coronavirus, every state in the wealthiest nation in the world is experiencing a rise in food insecurity. Although this hunger crisis predates the pandemic, it is only getting worse, with more and more people, especially children and seniors, going hungry. From February to May 2020, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) reported 6 million additional applicants—a 17 percent increase—and as the summer came to a close, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that in July, 12 percent of respondents, including as many as 17 million children, did not have enough to eat.

At the end of July, after the Census Bureau released these statistics, both the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which gave unemployment recipients an extra $600 per week in benefits, and the country’s only nationwide eviction moratorium expired. The U.S. House of Representatives has passed measures to tackle these problems, such as a true nationwide eviction moratorium and an extension of unemployment benefits, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and President Donald Trump have undermined and blocked these efforts for months. The failure to manage the coronavirus pandemic and ensuing economic recession, however, does not lie solely with Congress and the White House.

In some of his most consequential staffing decisions, President Trump disregarded public service experience in favor of empowering campaign donors, Wall Street executives, and big-business allies to lead the federal government’s most influential departments. These U.S. Senate-confirmed appointees wield substantial power in executing the administration’s policy priorities. Now, in a crisis that demands experienced governance on behalf of poor and low-income people, Trump appointees across the administration have shown themselves to be unprepared and unqualified, as exemplified by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ insistence on reopening schools without offering federal guidance on how to do so safely or Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin’s attempts to block oversight of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act’s $500 billion corporate bailout.

This column is the first in a three-part series that looks more closely at another example: Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and the consequences of his 2017 appointment. Taken together, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) actions under his leadership have left the agency’s singular potential to meaningfully alleviate hunger and poverty, especially during the current crisis, largely unfulfilled.

Perdue’s USDA weakened anti-hunger programs long before the pandemic began

Since President Trump appointed him in 2017, Secretary Perdue has spent his three-year tenure focused on entrenching corporate power at the expense of underpaid and unprotected workers across agricultural, service, and food industries, a dynamic that will be discussed later in the series. At the same time, the secretary pursued a deliberate effort to block access to the effective and critical anti-poverty programs many relied on before the pandemic—and need now more than ever.

The hunger crisis long predates Secretary Perdue’s tenure and the coronavirus pandemic, but his appointment left the USDA particularly unprepared for COVID-19. A multimillionaire, agricultural tycoon, and career politician, Perdue leads a department whose budget dedicates 65 percent of its resources to the poverty-alleviating Food and Nutrition Service, which houses SNAP and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).

SNAP in particular—the nation’s largest anti-hunger program—is the single most effective tool available to alleviate poverty, helping to keep more than 3 million people above the supplemental poverty measure in 2018 alone. Because the monthly payments are contingent on meeting eligibility criteria, SNAP is also responsive to economic downturns; as the population of eligible applicants increases, the program expands with it. Although SNAP is a crucial lifeline for millions, the benefits grant a meager $1.40 per person, per meal, meaning 80 percent of recipients run out of benefits before half of the month is over. Combined with a complex application process designed over the course of decades to encourage applicants to abandon their benefits, the program fails to achieve its full anti-poverty potential.

Over the course of his three years in office, Secretary Perdue has attempted to gut this program even further. As early as 2018, the USDA was attempting to implement cuts via the president’s budget and in the congressional negotiations of the 2018 Farm Bill, a traditionally bipartisan legislative package that determines funding for many programs under the purview of the USDA, including SNAP. The Trump administration’s input on the bill focused on pushing measures that would increase administrative burdens on both applicants and administrators. The proposed changes would have reduced states’ flexibility to streamline and nuance eligibility determinations, ensuring millions of people would be ineligible for the program. A broad bipartisan group of congressional lawmakers wholly rejected the secretary’s damaging changes, and the bill, minus Perdue’s priorities, passed the House of Representatives and the Senate—both of which were controlled by Republican majorities—with 367 votes and 87 votes, respectively.

Secretary Perdue did not relent. Days after the bill’s passage, the USDA exerted its regulatory power and introduced the first of three rule changes that would implement some of the proposals the legislative branch had just rejected. Between December 2018 and December 2019, Perdue proposed three rules—able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs), broad-based categorical eligibility, and standard utility allowance—that would block access to SNAP, making it more difficult to obtain and administer the crucial benefits. If implemented, they would collectively kick 3.7 million people off the program.

By spring 2020, nearly 18 months after the agency first announced it—and in spite of tens of thousands of public comments opposing it—the USDA prepared to instate the first rule. Primarily targeting a population of “able-bodied adults without dependents,” the policy eliminated states’ ability to ease SNAP eligibility requirements for people who could not report 20 hours of work per week due to extenuating economic circumstances—for instance, a recession brought on by a pandemic.

On March 13, 2020—the same day the president declared a national emergency on the coronavirus pandemic—a federal judge issued an injunction to halt Secretary Perdue from implementing the ABAWD rule. Had the court not issued this ruling, Secretary Perdue would have kicked more than 700,000 people off SNAP amid the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Perdue’s USDA has failed to meet the scale of need demanded by COVID-19

Secretary Perdue’s actions to alleviate hunger during the early weeks of the pandemic fell drastically short of meeting the growing need. While he appealed the injunction on the ABAWD rule, the nation watched tens of millions of pounds of food rot in fields as people waited hours in miles-long lines at food banks.

On March 26, 2020, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, granting the USDA the authority and responsibility to implement a robust response to the growing hunger crisis. The legislation directed the secretary to deliver emergency allotments to SNAP recipients “not greater than the applicable maximum monthly allotment.” To ensure that aid was disbursed quickly, the act directed the secretary to create a system that “is practicable under actual conditions in affected areas,” taking into account various factors such as personnel availability and health considerations. The USDA proceeded to set up an inefficient waiver process, requiring each individual state to apply, on a monthly basis, for the flexibility to provide the maximum benefit to its recipients—all while state governments faced record-breaking unemployment claims.

This approach—to construct inefficient bureaucracies separating recipients from the aid they need to feed their families—appears across Perdue’s early response to the pandemic. Other nutrition programs and policies created in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act were managed by the same inefficient application process—including Pandemic EBT, which gives additional SNAP benefits to children who would have received free and reduced-price meals in now-shuttered schools. The USDA oversaw a slow rollout of this new program and did not issue sufficient guidance to states on how to apply for these new benefits, worth approximately $114 per child, per month, until July 10—more than three months after the funds were first appropriated.

Although the USDA has faced the same confusing and unprecedented circumstances as all Americans, it is not just the execution of governance that was lacking. Research from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) shows that the agency took an unnecessarily restrictive view of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act—particularly the bill’s guidance on emergency SNAP allotments. Analysis from the CBPP, and a federal judge’s ruling in a Pennsylvania lawsuit, argue that Secretary Perdue had the legal authority to interpret the directive as establishing an extra payment separate from a SNAP recipient’s standard monthly benefit. Under that interpretation, a family of four could have received as much as an additional $680 per month, the maximum monthly benefit for a four-person household, to help put food on the table. As the coronavirus made frequent trips to grocery stores a public health risk, that increased flexibility to buy more food at once would have been a profoundly useful policy intervention for millions of people.

But Secretary Perdue rejected this interpretation, instead opting to bring every SNAP recipient up to the maximum monthly benefit. For the 12 million people—including 5 million children—who already needed and qualified for the maximum SNAP benefit before the pandemic began, Secretary Perdue’s decision ensured that they were excluded from the emergency aid.

Conclusion

President Trump’s appointment of Sonny Perdue to head the USDA had dire consequences before the pandemic, and these repercussions continue to reverberate today. An agricultural tycoon determined to gut SNAP now finds himself charged with responding to a growing hunger crisis amid a devastating pandemic. As food prices have skyrocketed since February, Secretary Perdue’s refusal to use SNAP to its fullest potential has made it even more difficult for the poorest Americans to meet their basic needs during this devastating crisis.

David Ballard is the campaign and communications manager for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress.

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