In Defense of SNAP

Why Targeting Food Programs for Low-Income Americans is the Wrong Answer

Claims that SNAP is ripe with fraud and waste are misguided, writes Sarah Sherman.

When Elizabeth Luna lost her job, she began receiving food stamps and learned how to use them. SNAP benefits are administered through an electronic debit system that works much like a debit card. (AP/David Runk)
When Elizabeth Luna lost her job, she began receiving food stamps and learned how to use them. SNAP benefits are administered through an electronic debit system that works much like a debit card. (AP/David Runk)

Many of the programs that provide vital services to low-income Americans are at risk during this current climate of budget battles and debt limit deadlocks. In particular, the nutrition programs administered by the Department of Agriculture are under increased scrutiny as Congress debates debt deals and holds hearings in preparation for next year’s Farm Bill reauthorization. At the center of these discussions and attacks is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly known as food stamps.

Nearly one in seven Americans, more than half of whom are children or seniors, receive help from SNAP in stretching their food budgets to last through the end of the month. Recent increases in program enrollment reflect both the growing need among American households and the success of outreach efforts to families who are eligible to receive these benefits.

“One of the most important aspects of SNAP is that it is structured to respond quickly to the needs of the hardest-hit households,” the administrator of the Food and Nutrition Service testified at last week’s House hearing. “Benefits flow into communities as economic conditions worsen, providing an economic boost even as they meet the nutrition needs of low-income people.”

Increased poverty and high unemployment rates in the wake of the Great Recession have certainly played a part in this rising need. At a time when so many families are struggling, it is troubling that the largest program to help low-income families buy nutritious food is being characterized as “a magnet for abuses and absurdities” that “could easily permit Trust Fund Babies driving Rolls Royces to get free food courtesy of Uncle Sam.”

Critics who claim that SNAP is wasteful are misguided for two reasons. First, SNAP has greatly improved program efficiency while maintaining record-low rates of error and fraud. And second, those who are truly worried about trimming the budget would do well to concentrate on the much greater waste found in other areas of spending, such as overpayments in defense contracts.

Any instance of fraud or abuse of government funds is unacceptable and should be addressed, and the USDA has been improving its efforts to do just that. Despite this progress, The Wall Street Journal recently attacked SNAP, using infrequent cases of fraud to dismiss the entire program as problematic.

The USDA set the record straight in their “fact vs. fiction” blog post about SNAP, arguing that program fraud is at an all-time low of 1 percent. Stores and individuals involved in SNAP trafficking—selling benefits or using them to pay for nonfood items—face increased punishments under the most recent Farm Bill.

Advances in technology have played a huge role in making sure that benefits go to those who are eligible and are spent as intended. Any time there are technological changes to how a program is operated, it takes time to determine the best ways to protect it from abuse—SNAP is certainly no exception.

The use of Electronic Benefits Transfer cards to redeem SNAP benefits has contributed greatly to the USDA’s ability to prevent and detect fraud in the program. Since transitioning from paper food stamps to the new electronic system, the USDA is now able to monitor transactions and detect cases of trafficking and retailers with suspicious SNAP trends.

We need to continue these efforts to eliminate fraud within SNAP spending, but we need to make sure that we do so using proven effective methods.

The use of fingerprinting is commonly suggested as a solution to deterring fraud. The states that conduct fingerprinting for SNAP applicants, however, have not seen any improvement that would justify the huge expenses required to implement the process nationwide. These states actually have higher payment error rates than states that do not fingerprint. According to antihunger advocate Joel Berg, the waste to be concerned about here is the millions of dollars spent on these ineffective fraud detection efforts.

The Wall Street Journal’s description of SNAP as a “bureaucratic crime wave” also ignores the reality that fraud constitutes a small fraction of SNAP spending and is dwarfed in comparison to abuse and waste of funds elsewhere in the federal budget, specifically in defense contracts.

Examples of wasteful spending are found throughout a recently leaked audit from the Department of Defense. The Army grossly overpaid Boeing defense contractors for spare helicopter parts—overcharges ranging from 33.3 percent to a staggering 177,475 percent of the actual costs. In one case, the Army spent $71.01 a piece for thin metal pins that had an actual cost of 4 cents each. And this is not the first time that troublesome defense contracts and wasteful spending have come to light. Discoveries of outrageous overpricing have become almost routine since the Project on Government Oversight was created in 1981.

Reducing fraud and waste across all departments and programs will mean that there are more resources available to help the most vulnerable Americans. If we continue to attack this country’s safety net programs, more families and children will suffer from hunger and poverty—leading to a loss of productivity and human potential that’s far too valuable to waste.

Sarah Sherman is a Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellow with the Poverty and Prosperity program at the Center for American Progress.

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