Food stamps feed costly political fire

Despite modest benefits and minimal fraud, the government's nutritional assistance program takes heat for supermarket splurges and sinking the farm bill.

By Jason Notte Jul 1, 2013 7:12PM
A sign on a frozen food case indicates that food stamps are accepted at the Dollar General Corp. store in Saddle Brook, New Jersey (© Emile Wamsteker/Bloomberg via Getty Images)Just two words can throw billions of dollars' worth of funding into limbo, set blood boiling and fill a website's comments field with a supertanker full of vitriol.

Food stamps.

The government's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program has drawn more heat in recent weeks after its inclusion in the $1 trillion farm bill. Republicans' demands for deeper cuts to SNAP than Democrats would accept sank the bill entirely, with Bloomberg reporting the GOP is now considering splitting farm subsidies from SNAP to revive the farm bill.

Food assistance has been part of farm legislation since 1977, when Jimmy Carter was president. Since then, the number of participants in SNAP has almost tripled, from 17 million to more than 47 million. The program's annual cost has also more than doubled to $80 billion.

Splitting SNAP from farm subsidies, however, isn't making either farmers or proponents of food aid very happy. SNAP backers say it will not only lead to cuts for the program but reduce incentive to tie it to healthful, farm-based foods. The National Farmers Union, meanwhile, is trying to rehash the initial bill with a few compromises that should get it through. Farmers groups are also aware that without SNAP's help, their subsidies could plummet.

Neither group is heartened by comments from politicians such as Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), who followed up the farm bill's demise by retelling a constituent's story of watching a food stamp recipient in a supermarket checkout line pay for crab legs with an Electronic Benefit Transfer card.

"He looks at the king crab legs and looks at his ground meat and realizes," Gohmert said, "because he does pay income tax . . . he is actually helping pay for the king crab legs when he can't pay for them for himself."

As The Huffington Post notes, it would be a compelling story if letters to the editor featuring the same complaint didn't appear in The Columbus Dispatch in 1993 and in the Myrtle Beach Sun-News in 2007.

"It's definitely a meme. You hear it a lot," Elizabeth Lower-Basch, an analyst for the Center for Law and Social Policy, told The Huffington Post. "There's a lot of a-friend-told-me-she-saw type stories."

It also doesn't adhere to the numbers. A government survey from the late '90s found that meats accounted for 34.9% of food stamp purchases, grains 19.7%, fruits and vegetables 19.6% and dairy products 12.5%. Soft drinks made up 5.6% and sweets 2.5%.

While even SNAP supporters admit the system can't overcome bad choices -- like buying luxury foods that eat into a huge chunk of the roughly $120 per month that a food stamp recipient in Pennsylvania making $2,000 a month would receive -- it's not quite as flawed as leering supermarket critics would suggest.

Nearly a third of SNAP recipients earn money by working, and 91% have annual incomes at or below the poverty line. Most recipients are either children, elderly or disabled. Fraud such as SNAP trafficking, whereby recipients exchange cards for lesser sums of cash, has dropped from 4 cents per dollar of benefits in 1993 to 1 cent per dollar from 2006 to 2008, according to the Department of Agriculture.

More on moneyNOW

Jul 1, 2013 9:35PM
Food Stamp recipients need to be in a database that all stores access before selling alcoholic products. I see too many instances of people buying food stuffs with EBT cards and then pulling twenties out of their pockets to buy 30 packs of beer.

If they can afford beer, wine, and liquor, they should not be getting food stamps.

Jul 1, 2013 10:11PM
Modest benefits?  Rice and beans and bologna for 3 meals a day is a modest benefit.  Soda, steaks, fresh fruit, brand name cereal and cookies and chips is not a modest benefit.

Minimal fraud?  Ever been standing in the line at the grocery store and see someone pull a wad of cash out of their pocket and thumb through it, looking for their food stamp card?  I've seen it happen a bunch of times.  I've also seen these same people wearing designer clothes and loading their groceries in expensive vehicles.  They also don't seem to have a problem finding cash to pay for smokes and booze.

Did this author not bother to read any previous articles about all the food stamp fraud?  There have been a bunch of them written lately, but they probably aren't on Notte's reading list.  Recent investigations have uncovered lots and lots of bodegas and convenience stores accepting food stamps for cigarettes.  People using all of their food stamp benefit to purchase cans of soda and then sell them for pennies on the dollar to everyone else in the trailer park or ghetto.   Like any other gov program, for every dollar they confiscate in taxes, about 20 cents makes it into the hands of the recipients, and the rest gets eaten up by the bureaucracy.. 

Jul 2, 2013 8:13AM
In Michigan there are 1.8M "bridge card" holders.  The average amount is $540/month.  You see these people buying all kinds of extra stuff, getting in new cars and driving away.  The program is out of control and there are those that think this is their birth right. 
Jul 2, 2013 10:05AM
I read a story of a single mom with two kids making over 60 thousand a year with food stamps, free childcare and health care, subsidized housing and utility help.  She gets everything without working.  My neighbors sit on their bottoms with a couple kids and don't work.  They told me they will not take a minimum wage job because they make more on welfare.  I worked three jobs in college.  Recently I had to stay one night in the hospital.  My bill came to almost seven thousand with the ambulance ride.  My insurance covers some but not all.  I will be paying that bill.  A person I work with just had a baby and it is all covered with badgercare.   She doesn't pay a penny. Great world went you are punished for working. 
Jul 1, 2013 9:46PM
This is no lie -- food stamps are being used to buy lobster tails   We've seen it in Honolulu.
Jul 2, 2013 7:13AM

I spent years working as a grocery store checker.  The stories of extreme excess are definitely rare, but what I would call mild excess is practically the norm. Generally all top shelf, name brand stuff. Lots of pre-prepared high salt and low nutrition stuff...


You'd also see people buying stuff that would resell easy like lots of soda and candy.  The other common fraud was straw purchases where the card holder would be shopping with or for somebody else. 


With the paper stamps it seemed like people still had some shame abaout using the program.  The cards are too low profile and most people seem to feel no shame in using them at all...

Jul 1, 2013 9:12PM



Buying votes is shameful.!!!!

Jul 1, 2013 8:40PM
Food stamps is a career  choice for  democrats.
Jul 1, 2013 10:10PM

Food stamps are another form of welfare to a bunch of lazy people who should be working somewhere.

These are the people who should be picking fruit and vegetables on the farms not the imports from Mexico.  The food stamp program need to have more rules as to who can collect them.  The value per person is much to high and needs to be reduced.

Jul 2, 2013 9:20AM
The author says "minimal fraud".......lies, lies, lies and more lies. Don't believe it tax paying working people. Your government is collecting taxes from you and distributing to the shysters, free loaders, Ne'erdowells, and loafers. Your government is providing them incentive not to work and be self sufficient.
Jul 1, 2013 8:34PM
The simple problem is it is gone in a SNAP lets get back to a hand up instead of a hand out. 
Jul 2, 2013 7:37AM

Part of the issue with food stamps in their current form is they are a subsidy to the entire food and retail industry. The US government is spending billions a year to keep people from growing hungry, yet pays the full shelf price for every item purchased.  Much of that is purchased at the high price places those of us paying our own tab would never shop for food like drug stores and gas stations.


I've got no problem feeding all these people if we were taking advantage of economies of scale and doing it as cheaply as possible. It should be about feeding people, not helping them sustain an unaffordable lifestyle.  If I were running things, I'd put the Ag dept in charge of purchasing and the post office in charge in charge of distribution. Govt brand everything for all dry goods delivered right to the door... Perishables could be met with spelled out vouchers for use at local stores similar to current WIC checks (which is a real example of a low fraud assistance program that works). 

Jul 2, 2013 10:24AM
How about the fact that some of these "poor, needy people" are able to buy $500.00 wedding cakes with EBT ?  And before some of you say you can't, I worked retail for over 30+ years, and if you still don't believe me, look up what you can and cannot buy with EBT.  I have no problem with our money helping people in need.  I have a problem with SOME people abusing the system because they are lazy or selfish or both.
Jul 2, 2013 10:26AM
...and I don't care what the SCOTUS says; if you are not a citizen of this country, you shouldn't receive benefits.
Jul 2, 2013 12:27AM

this is how it should be.. drug test  the  applicants if they don't have a valid prescription for it they get declined feel it should be the same for cigs too moist never change there  lives as there's no penalty so why care ..I do as I work in ac at low budget apts   they live in .crappy apts have brand new cars .big tvs , high class clothes stop by a des or other gov assist and see for yourself..its real sad when most there cars are 2005s and newer. newer  than what I have anyhow,,,nothing  will happen till we stand up and stop it..... change the system .............









Jul 1, 2013 10:26PM
If the purpose of SNAP is for food/nutrition assistance, then they should not include any meat products.  That would be the end of government contributions to inefficient food production and recipients get more nutrition for their money.   Beans and whole grains contribute far better protein quality without the health BS of meat.

Cutting out ice cream and other dessert categories would also be wise.  We do have a fat-a_s_s epidemic in this country.
Jul 2, 2013 10:03AM
Food stamps represent the Democrat philosphy of life: why work if you don't have to?  Declare yourself a victim and steal from those stupid enough to not do the same. 
Jul 2, 2013 9:58AM
America doesn't need a farm bill or food stamps . End all Government programs now . Let everybody take care of  each other. Let's see how that work's .
Jul 2, 2013 9:59AM
No fraud in the program, yea right, I saw with my eyes a sign in the Dollar General Store a couple of years ago saying that they accepted the EBT card to purchase Easter Baskets....does that sound like food to you?  I guess if you sit at home all day getting paid very well to do nothing it does... 
Jul 2, 2013 12:43AM
how much of the $80 billion dollar cost of the program is due to internal graft and gaming the system? my guess is at least 25%. my guess is the same with the irs. once you are on the inside you get to know the systems weaknesses. exploiting then is a piece of cake. in 2009, they offered a first time home buyer credit of up to $6000. hundreds of millions of dollars in phoney property buyers were paid  by the irs. how much of those hundreds of millions of dollars wound up in some irs employees pocket?  government corruption at its best.
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