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Farm Bill's food stamp program questioned

11/23/2013 @ 12:47pm

Since President Barack Obama took office in January 2009, food-stamp spending has more than doubled, to roughly $80 billion a year, and the number of recipients has risen 70%, to 47 million. But the Obama administration and congressional Democrats are hitting the panic button over a scheduled phaseout of special benefits enacted to fight the last recession.

Perhaps more importantly, the food-stamp program (recently renamed Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) has dismally failed to improve nutrition, while fueling epidemics of obesity and diabetes. And the current program is more corrupt and wasteful than the program that exists in the imagination of its supporters.

Kevin Concannon, undersecretary of agriculture for food, nutrition, and consumer services, bragged in January that food-stamp "fraud has been reduced to the lowest rate in the history of the program." The Agriculture Department claims that only 1% of benefits are illicitly exchanged for cash or alcohol, drugs, or other prohibited uses.

But this is based solely on the number of violators who get caught. The USDA's inspector general noted in September 2012 that the Food and Nutrition Service "reports recipient fraud as the number of recipients disqualified each year. This number only includes those recipients actually identified committing fraud and does not estimate the rate of potential fraud." This is as deceptive as claiming that the number of speeding tickets that police issue automatically reveals how many drivers exceeded the speed limit.

The inspector's staff visited 10 states and discovered that, despite a vast increase in food-stamp enrollment, "none of the states had increased the resources" for fraud detection and prevention efforts.

New Mexico Human Services Secretary Sidonie Squier complained in February that the biggest fraud issue in her state was individuals selling their food-stamp electronic-benefit card, then claiming it was lost or stolen. Roughly 70% of all such cards issued in New Mexico last year were replacement cards. Squier told Albuquerque's KOB-TV, "We know that there are some people who lose them four, six, or eight times, and it's pretty suspicious, but you can't do anything about it based on the federal rules. They want people to have the cards."

With USDA encouragement and subsidies, state governments exert far more effort boosting enrollment than preventing abuses. Four years after the official end of the recession, Florida is paying individual recruiters to sign up at least 150 new food-stamp recipients per month. The Agriculture Department urges state and local governments to conduct food-stamp parties and bingo games to fan enthusiasm for the program.

Federal law says the main purpose of food stamps is "raising levels of nutrition among low-income households." The program is a dismal failure on this score: The USDA's most recent national study found no difference in nutrient intake between food-stamp recipients and eligible nonrecipients.

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