April 24 2014

Finally: Federal Agency to Fight Food Stamp Fraud

Patrice J. Lee

Tens of millions of Americans receive assistance through our nation’s social safety net. Food stamps are one of the most visible forms of assistance that poor and struggling families receive. However, some recipients have taken our taxpayer largess as an opportunity to game the system for their financial benefit.

Now, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that it is tightening rules to go after those who sell their food stamps for money.

Referred to as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the program is the nation's largest food assistance program for low-income people. SNAP moved from providing recipients with paper vouchers to depositing the monetary value of benefits on electronic cards, which act like debit cards that recipients can use to buy groceries.

In 2013, this entitlement program cost taxpayers $76.4 billion and supplied more than 47 million low-income people with an average of $133 a month to buy food. But for some recipients that isn’t enough. They want more so they resell their cards then request new ones. We can’t speculate what they spend that extra money income on, but drug habits is one concern that comes to mind. Whatever the reason this behavior is abuse that needs to be stamped out.

The USDA’s proposed rule would create a consistent national policy and force states, which manage the program, to flag any recipient who requests more than four replacement cards in one year. They would then be investigated and hopefully their benefits removed.

The Hill reports:

To combat fraud, the USDA will require states to monitor the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and be on the lookout for excessive requests for replacement cards. People who request four or more replacements in a year will receive a warning notice.

"If trafficking is suspected, the state agency must refer the cases to the state's fraud investigation unit," the USDA wrote in the Federal Register.

"After the fourth replacement card, a household's shopping behavior is three times more likely to be flagged as potential trafficking," the agency added.

In an effort to crack down on people who sell their cards, the USDA published an interim rule that required states to monitor card replacement activity.

Since then, states have cut down on the fraud, the agency noted. Now, 8 out of 10 recipients do not request any replacement cards, and 98 percent request three or fewer cards each year.

"Based on current data, the number of clients requesting five or more cards has decreased nationally since many states adopted this practice," the USDA said.


We commend the USDA for tightening its rules. It demonstrates good stewardship of taxpayer dollars on behalf of this government agency. We hope these actions will be administered efficiently. Such measures can send a signal to other recipients that gaming the system will not be tolerated.

The next step is just as important: investigation and enforcement. When states actually remove people from the food stamp roll for abusing the benefit, it will be big wake-up call not just to the person who loses that benefit but to others. And perhaps more can be done to shame those individuals publically so that it serves as a strong deterrent to others. Remember the old days when grocery stores would post pictures of people who often wrote bad checks?

This ought to be an example for other federal agencies that provide assistance to the poor.

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