A 30-something graduate from the University of Chicago turned part-time blogger boldly declared, “I’m sort of a foodie, and I’m not going to do the ‘living off ramen’ thing.” He’d just finished “roasted rabbit with butter, tarragon and sweet potatoes.” His friend, a 30-year old art school graduate acknowledged, “I’m eating better than I ever have before.”
The accounts come from the left-leaning Salon, which published the friends’ food journey under the provocative headline: Hipsters on food stamps.
That was in March 2010, when 44.5 million people were part of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Now, more than 47.7 million are receiving food stamps.
Recently, Ohio was targeted for participation in a new federal program to curb abuse in the food stamp program. Last year, according to The Courier (Findlay, Ohio), the state auditor “became aware of scams involving electronic benefit cards and people selling them, then seeking another one by claiming it was lost.” In 2011, 17,000 food stamp recipients in Ohio received 10 or more reissued cards. The fear, of course, is that those cards were not lost, but rather sold.
A November 2012 article from The Evening Times (Little Falls, New York) reveals just how quickly the cost of food stamp fraud accumulates. The local Welfare Fraud Task Force Team arrested nine individuals for amassing $107,512.04 in “unentitled benefits.” Two of the individuals, a husband and wife, “failed to report income on their applications” and “received $13,465 in food stamp benefits” during “the time period of March 2009 to April 2012.”
It is not just individuals gaming the system though. Three days after Barack Obama was reelected as president, The Enterprise (Brockton, Massachusetts) reported five local stores were accused of making illegal food stamp transactions. The stores were operating a cash-for-food stamps exchange. The Enterprise explained, if a food stamp recipient “wanted $50 cash, the store owner would swipe the card for $100, which would be credited to the store, and then give the customer the cash in exchange.”
If it sounds like small ball, it’s not. Last April, Eunice News (Louisiana) reported on brothers who own a pair of convenience stores and “defrauded the food stamp program out of $2.7 million and allowed customers to exchange their food stamps for alcohol, tobacco products, and cash.” While that may not seem like a lot by Washington standards, it would take a family of three at the current poverty level nearly 140 years to earn that much money.
Despite the alarming frequency of news reports, the United States Department of Agriculture insists fraud accounts for only 1% of the total cost of the food stamp program. Since the program costs nearly $80 billion, that is nearly $800 million a year in fraud. That’s enough to buy nearly 4,500 single family homes.
Of course, none of this accounts for the hipsters, who were heaping “Thai yellow curry with coconut milk and lemongrass, Chinese gourd sautéed in hot chile sauce and sweet clementine juice” onto their plates, “all of it courtesy of government assistance.”
It is difficult, if not impossible, to calculate the exact degree of abuse. A Bush-era document says more than one-quarter of all benefits go toward food items not considered “basic.” It’s unclear if coconut milk and lemongrass would be considered basic, but if that ratio holds true today, the abuse far outweighs the fraud. That’s $20 billion in taxpayer money going for things like chips and soda, and maybe sweet clementine juice.
Now, don’t expect to see news coverage of the Food Stamp Bill. When such waste, fraud and abuse is embedded into the program, it should come as no surprise many lawmakers who vote to reauthorize the food stamp program won’t be calling it the Food Stamp Reauthorization Act of 2013. Instead, lawmakers and the media will simply call it a farm bill.
George Orwell, call your office.