WASHINGTON – Former Deputy Secretary of Agriculture in the Obama administration Kathleen Merrigan, a Hillary Clinton campaign surrogate, said the participation rate for elderly Americans in the food stamp program is too low.
Merrigan appeared on behalf of the Clinton campaign at a forum held by the Farm Foundation, which is a nonprofit organization that encourages an “objective analysis” of issues that impact the agriculture industry. Campaign co-chairman Sam Clovis represented Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at the event.
Both campaigns support keeping nutrition programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) inside the farm bill. Clovis and Merrigan were asked if federal spending on the food stamp program could be reduced at some point.
“The leading aspect of this is what cuts would we make. I think the cuts ought to be natural cuts. They ought to be the fact that these are means-tested programs and if we have an economy that is growing at 4 percent and we were able to get people off the sidelines, we had fewer and fewer people qualifying for nutrition assistance programs then, then I think we reduce that number and we reduce the cost of our food stamp program and that’s really the approach that ought be taken on this issue,” Clovis said at the forum.
“The goal ought to be to get people off dependence on government and the safety net we’ve established out here is a very strong safety net. And I think what we really want to do is create an economy where we don’t have to be so dependent on that safety net and people can be dependent on the themselves,” he added.
Merrigan applauded the SNAP program for helping low-income families.
“The SNAP program is the marvel of the world — that we are a moral, a humane and caring nation, that we take care of people who have hit hard times. And, by the way, the vast majority of people on SNAP are children, are disabled, you know, there are a number of veterans that are receiving SNAP benefits,” she said.
Merrigan said there are currently 45 million Americans on food stamps but not enough elderly Americans are participating in the program.
“They’re elderly, and elderly not in the numbers that we would like to see, by the way, you know; I lost my father recently, my uncle just turned 91 this week, he’s fine, he’s being taken care of by his daughters,” she said.
However, Merrigan said, there are “a lot of elderly people” who have “too much pride to say they need help.”
“Only about 30-35 percent of eligible elderly citizens in this country eligible for SNAP, needing SNAP assistance, actually get it so I think we have work to do in terms of outreach,” she said.
In addition to the farm bill and food stamps, the surrogates weighed in on immigration reform.
Clovis said Trump is prepared to work with the agriculture industry to reform the legal immigration system for foreign agricultural workers so fewer migrants seeking work in the U.S. try to enter the country illegally across the border.
Clovis also said many farmers and ranchers would prefer to have a legal workforce.
“We’ve made it very clear that we want to secure our borders — that we want to do all we can to make sure that we operate under the rule of law. Of all the values in America, the rule of law is the number one value treasured most by Americans — the rule of law. And if that is in fact the case, can we endorse immigration laws and can we do it in a methodical and a deliberate and intentional way to make sure we are not out here to damage or harm anyone as we go forward? And particularly to go out here and dismantle industries because of the wild notion that we are going to go out here and have these massive deportation activities,” Clovis said.
“We are going to enforce the laws of the country and through that process we will have the opportunity to sit down with members of different industries that rely on it. Agriculture depends on immigrant work more than any other industry. About 1 in 4 members of the workforce in agriculture are illegal — 1 in 4,” he added.
Clovis said Trump wants to “streamline” the H2A visa system.
“When you have no limit on the number of people you can bring in as temporary workers, we think we ought to be able to sit down and work with the industry to make sure that we have a system that works where we can bring in those workers and make them legal,” he said. “There’s nobody in the world, I don’t think, a farmer or rancher that wants to have illegal people working for them. If they want a legal workforce we will work with them to make sure that workforce can be legal.”
Merrigan said Trump’s approach to illegal immigration would not work for the agriculture industry.
“You tell me what works best for American agriculture: the ‘we’re going to build a wall and Mexico is going to pay for it’ approach or honest comprehensive immigration reform? Secretary Clinton understands that agriculture relies on foreign-born labor and she is ready to lead us beyond the current political impasse, which is crippling the agricultural industry,” she said.
Merrigan said labor shortages have contributed to more imported produce into the U.S. She cited an analysis from the Partnership for a New American Economy that said U.S. spending on imported produce grew by 79 percent from 1998 to 2012.
“That’s a shocking figure. As president, Sec. Clinton will introduce comprehensive immigration reform with a pathway to full and equal citizenship. She said she is going to do this in her first 100 days. She’s going to treat every person with dignity, fix the family visa backlog while uploading the rule of law and protecting our borders, national security and bringing hardworking people into the formal economy,” she said.