Status quo of waste, fraud and abuse in the food stamp program cannot remain

Sep 24, 2013

As most Americans are aware by now, the nation’s primary government food program (formally called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, but most widely known as food stamps) has in the last decade exploded in both size and cost.

Much of the expansion was due to our still lingering economic crisis, as overall food stamp spending rose from $35 billion in 2007 to about $80 billion in 2012. That is both understandable and warranted. Since its inception in the 1960s, food assistance has been aimed at providing an important safety net for the needy, especially children in low- or no-income households, of which there have been sadly too many in our country of late. What is not understandable or warranted is our government’s continuing inability to insure that benefits derived from the hard work and generosity of American taxpayers are limited to those in need and not abused. We’ve all heard, and many of us have witnessed, examples of food stamp abuse, including their use for purchase of luxury food items such as lobster tails, their exchange for cash from unscrupulous merchants and their procurement by able-bodied adults who are far from truly impoverished (e.g. lottery winners).

This past week in the U.S. House of Representatives, I and many of my Republican colleagues passed a plan to address these chronic problems with passage of legislation called the Nutrition Reform and Work Opportunity Act. The primary purpose of this legislation is twofold: To restore the integrity of work requirements for able-bodied adults without children, requirements contained in welfare reform measures in the 1990s that have been largely suspended since. And to place tighter controls on the widely-used, and too frequently abused, practice of basing food stamp eligibility on broad categories, such as having inquired about other welfare benefits, rather than the income and asset standards established in the law.

In recent years, the number of able-bodied adults without dependents receiving food stamps has increased at an even faster pace than the program as a whole. According to the non-partisan Congressional Research Service, between 2007 and 2011 such recipients climbed by nearly 164 percent. Much of that increase is no doubt the result of a blanket suspension of the work requirement for able-bodied adults in President Obama’s 2009 stimulus, and widespread state-by-state waivers, including Michigan, in the years since.
Under our proposal, in all states able-bodied adults without children would be limited to three months of food stamps, with a provision that 15% of these recipients could be exempted for reasons of hardship or lack of work in a given area. The Nutrition Reform and Work Opportunity Act also would restrict so-called categorical eligibility for food stamps, a practice in use all over the country, and encouraged by the current Administration, by which applicants automatically qualify for assistance without a calculation of their income or assets by virtue of having done as little as receive a referral to a welfare helpline. Current guidelines also allow food stamp recipients to supplement their monthly allotment if they receive any amount of low income energy assistance. In many states, including Michigan, it means someone receiving only $1-$5 a month in heating assistance can get $100 or more in extra food aid.

Ending those practices does not mean the truly needy would be deprived of assistance. Under the House proposal, recipients whose heating costs exceed the statutory maximum or whose household income and assets are below the statutory minimum would remain eligible. But the proposal would eliminate the maddening spectacle of food stamp lottery millionaires, surfer dudes using their food stamps to buy lobster and end the wasteful practice of food stamp recruitment campaigns, including those in places like Mexico.

If enacted into law, the House proposal would save taxpayers an estimated $40 billion over 10 years. Opposition to reform of the food stamp program has delayed needed approval of the nation’s Farm Bill, with majority Democrats in the U.S. Senate unwilling to separate farm and food programs or concur with anything beyond token reductions in the food stamp program. I support passage of a Farm Bill, whether it incorporates food stamps or not. But I don’t support the status quo of waste, fraud and abuse in the food stamp program. It’s time to fix it.

Candice Miller is the U.S. Representative for Michigan’s 10th Congressional District from Harrison Township.