Among the most depressing of the many Republican attacks on people who are the least able to defend themselves are the ones snapping away at the SNAP program, aka Food Stamps. It’s even more depressing that the attacks are based on myths and urban legends.
The attacks are continuous. As of April 16, 2016 approximately 41,000 lost access to food assistance as a result of the Walker Administration’s work rules, although his department of Health Services admits it doesn’t track people who find work on their own. [WEAU] Another 1,000 will lose access to food assistance in West Virginia. [Dpost] Add yet another 5,000 in Georgia who’ve lost access because of work rule changes. [USAPP] Louisiana hacked off the access for 30,000 in late 2015. [AJA] And, then, of course, there’s the viral display of the lady who took it upon herself to embarrass a fellow human being for using assistance to feed his children.
The tantrum, if true, illustrates the extent to which the myths and urban legends about the food assistance programs have become part of the Republican narrative about food stamps and the people who use them.
One of the more persistent myths is that there is an abundance of food stamp fraud, and the fraud is the result of misuse of the assistance by the recipients.
First, the food assistance program is actually one of the most efficient and honest programs in government. And, most of the fraud is on the part of retailers, NOT the customers.
“SNAP fraud has actually been cut by three-quarters over the past 15 years, and the program’s error rate is at an all-time low of less than 3 percent. The introduction of EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) cards has dramatically reduced consumer fraud. According to the USDA, the small amount of fraud that continues is usually on the part of retailers, not consumers.” [HC.org]
Even during the last Recession, SNAP problems were miniscule: “SNAP has one of the most rigorous quality control systems of any public benefit program, and despite the recent growth in caseloads, the share of total SNAP payments that represent overpayments, underpayments, or payments to ineligible households reached a record low in fiscal year 2011.” [CPBB]
The USDA, which administers the program has taken notice of the allegations of “waste, fraud, and abuse,” continually leveled at the assistance, and presented a report in 2013:
“The report indicates that the vast majority of trafficking – the illegal sale of SNAP benefits for cash or other ineligible items – occurs in smaller-sized retailers that typically stock fewer healthy foods. Over the last five fiscal years, the number of retailers authorized to participate in SNAP has grown by over 40 percent; small- and medium-sized retailers account for the vast majority of that growth. The rate of trafficking in larger grocery stores and supermarkets—where 82 percent of all benefits were redeemed—remained low at less than 0.5 percent.” (emphasis added)
More specifically, most of the fraudulent use can be attributed to these small retailers:
“While the overall trafficking rate has remained relatively steady at approximately one cent on the dollar, the report attributes the change in the rate to 1.3 percent primarily to the growth in small- and medium-sized retailers authorized to accept SNAP that may not provide sufficient healthful offerings to recipients. These retailers accounted for 85 percent of all trafficking redemptions. This finding echoes a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that suggested minimal stocking requirements in SNAP may contribute to corrupt retailers entering the program.” [emphasis added]
However, the lady in the supermarket screaming at the customer, is probably thinking it’s the food assistance recipient who commits most of the fraud and not the retailer. She’s likely not concerned that the USDA has initiated rules to sanction 529 retailers, and permanently disqualifying 826 outlets for trafficking in benefits, or falsifying their applications. Or, that in 2012 the USDA reviewed more than 15,000 stores and permanently disqualified nearly 1,400 for various program violations. She’s also not likely concerned that the USDA has expanded the definitions of fraud to include newer schemes. [USDA]
Let’s conjecture that the screaming-mimi is associating food assistance with lazy do-nothings who are eating from her hard earned sacred tax dollars. Again, she’s wrong.
Using Nevada (pdf) as an example for the moment, the median income of SNAP recipients in the state was $20,479 per year, or about $1700 per month, and 49% of the households had at least one person working in the previous 12 months; 29% had two or more workers, and only 21.8% had no one working in the previous year. Why might the person not be working? Try acknowledging that more than 1/2 of SNAP beneficiaries nationally are either children or the elderly. [StoH] And, no – they are not undocumented individuals: “Undocumented immigrants are not (and never have been) eligible for SNAP benefits. Documented immigrants can only receive SNAP benefits if they have resided within the United States for at least five years (with some exceptions for refugees, children, and individuals receiving asylum).” [StoH]
On a national basis, children account for 44% of food assistance, the elderly and the disabled account for another 20%. That leaves 36% who are non-elderly, and not disabled, of whom 22% have children to support and feed, and 14% are childless. [CBPP]
Those interested in the SNAP statistics for every Congressional District in the nation can find the pdf files here.
Those interested in living in the fact based universe will also find that far from munching on the taxpayer’s dime, every $1 dollar in food assistance generates $1.80 in economic returns to the community. [USDA]
However, we can publicize every FAQ, every article, every report, in the land and there will still be screamers at the Wal-Mart who are convinced that low-life no-gooders mooching on the dole are taking their earnings and wallowing in sin and sloth. The right wing echo chamber has done a good job of vilifying children, the elderly, the disabled, and the down on their luck to find an excuse to cut spending for at risk citizens.
The snapping turtles have also done a good job of associating African Americans with food assistance programs.
“The 2013 data shows, white people are nearly three times less likely than African-Americans to live in poverty; yet, white people claim more food stamps. According to the data, not only do white people benefit from food stamps, they also benefit from not having politicians and cops target and malign them as lazy, unproductive welfare queens who take advantage of a social safety net. As the chart indicates, racist ideas about welfare have come to overshadow statistical facts that reveal that the face of food stamps is in fact white.” [AnHQ]
There is support for this conclusion in Nevada statistics. In Congressional District One 58% of food stamp recipients are white, in Congressional District Two 80.3% are white, in Congressional District Three 66.3% are white, and in Congressional District Four 52.9% are white. According to the Census Bureau Nevada District 1 has a population of 693,623 of whom 380,587 are white; District 2 has 697,426 residents of whom 580,111 are white; District 3 has a population of 734,973 of whom 499,767 are white; and District 4 has a population of 713,077 of whom 470,799 are white. As much as the popular right wing mythology may want to reinforce the narrative of the Welfare Queen it just doesn’t fit with the statistical reality.
When statistics don’t fit … try ideological mythology. Food Stamps make you dependent on Government, and dependency is evil incarnate because it is a disincentive to work. This, flat out, makes no sense at all. For example, I live in an area with a public water system. Does hooking up to the water system mean that I’m lazy and have no incentive to walk to the spring for the daily bucket? Or, that I should have to dig my own well, and install my own septic tank? Perhaps this is plausible if I live far enough from my neighbors to put in a septic system, but I don’t so the result would be “my septic tank next to your well.” Not a pleasant nor hygienic prospect. Do public roads make me a lazy dependent? Does having a police department make me less independent – should I have to hire my own rent-a-cop? Maybe in some radical libertarian landscape no one depends on anyone else, but this is only a fairy tale of dystopian proportions. Not a land in which any rational soul would want to reside.
There’s another element not often discussed in polite circles – good old fashioned selfishness. The trick is to make selfishness acceptable. Perhaps some of the snapping turtles harbor an unhealthy notion that someone out there somewhere is taking money out of their shells, someone who is undeserving of assistance. I’d be willing to bet that a right wing snapping turtle would never agree that food assistance should be denied to an octogenarian, or to a disabled person, or to a small child, or to a young mother trying to keep food on the table while going to school to complete her education. So, the “undeserving” must be meanly labeled. They’re Lazy, they’re druggies, they’re people who “have too many children.” (I’m particularly appalled at the argument which goes: “They” have too many children,” while the next contention is that funding for family planning must be eliminated.) The line “I saw people at the food bank who are driving better cars than mine,” illustrates the issue.
This example is a visceral reaction – not a questioning skepticism. Is the vehicle the only asset of any significant value in the entire household? Does “better” mean newer? If so, then what was traded in to buy it? The comment better illustrates a definition of poverty that would have only the totally destitute ‘deserving’ of assistance, not someone with a functioning vehicle, an air-conditioner, a television set, a refrigerator – as if these consumer items weren’t a necessity in modern American life. Define poverty harshly enough and all manner of selfishness can be justified.
There’s one myth justifying selfishness we can dismiss. The one that says we should drug test SNAP recipients to see if they’re worthy. Seven states spent more than one million dollars on drug testing welfare recipients only to discover that there wasn’t a reason to do it in the first place. Missouri spent $336,297 testing 38,970 recipients to find 48 positive tests. (0.123%) Oklahoma spent $385,872 on tests for 3,342 people and got 297 positives. (11%) Utah’s results were less rational, 9,552 people were tested and 29 were positive. (3.03%) Kansas screened 2,783 persons, with 11 positive results, a 3.95% result costing $40,000. Mississippi tested 3,656 persons and got 2 positive drug tests. Tennessee tested 16,017 people and got 37 positives. Arizona tested 142,424 persons and got a grand total of 3 positive results. [TP] Not that it will put much of a chink in the armor of the snapping turtles, but the numbers certainly don’t justify the expense or the rationale for selfishness underlying the testing.
I’d like to see the day when (1) Congressman Sludgepump launches his canards about SNAP recipients being lazy moochers, and a reporter asks if he knows the demographics of the recipients in his District, or when (2) State legislator Gloomcryer decries the possibility of drug use by food stamp beneficiaries and he’s challenged to cite statistics to support his contentions, or when (3) we finally become outraged at the outrageous duplicity and mendacity of the Snapping Turtles.