Nation Reporter: 'Deep Racism' at the Heart of Food Stamp Reform

With a record 46 million Americans now receiving food stamps and rampant abuse resulting in what the Wall Street Journal calls a “food stamp crime wave,Nation reporter Lizzie Ratner believes that “deep racism” is “at the heart of conservative food stamp critiques”:

The deep racism at the heart of conservative food stamp critiques offers at least one clue as to why the Obama administration has been unable or unwilling to champion SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] as a valuable recession antidote: as the nation’s first African-American president, Obama is vulnerable to racist innuendo, which his opponents are only too happy to exploit.

Furthermore, Ms. Ratner contends that “the food stamp program has remained surprisingly sensitive to people’s needs” and “is, in many ways, a model entitlement program.” Still, says Ms. Ratner, the food stamp program’s benefit levels are too “stingy,” and sensible anti-fraud efforts to reform the program, such as those proposed by Sen. Jeff Sessions, can only be the result of racism.

Equally troubling, Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican with a record of racebaiting, led a charge in the Senate this past fall to “reform” food stamps by restricting eligibility and undoing a planned $9 billion budget increase, supposedly to crack down on fraud and government excess.

Ms. Ratner’s baseless racial attack obscures an otherwise noble effort: Sen. Sessions’s amendment was an attempt to save taxpayers billions in mismanaged funds resulting from so-called “categorical eligibility”–a provision that makes recipients of other federal benefits automatically eligible for food stamps.

“What this means,” explained Sen. Sessions, “is that even if your assets or income level should make you ineligible, you will receive food stamps regardless. For instance, in one state, simply calling a pregnancy hotline can make you eligible for food stamps–regardless of whether you meet the program’s requirements. This program is not being run honestly, effectively, or fairly.”

As Sen. Sessions points out, at a time when the federal government spends $4 billion more a day than it takes in, finding ways to be wise with taxpayers’ money is critical.

“We’re in a fiscal crisis that is already killing jobs,” says Sen. Sessions, “and these bills just increase spending–and destroy confidence–that much more.”

Sessions is right. Over the last four years, federal spending on the nation’s food stamp program–officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)–has more than doubled, going from $33 billion to $77 billion under President Barack Obama. In 2012, taxpayers will spend a projected $89 billion on the program. Today, a record 46 million Americans now receive food stamp–an increase of over two-thirds since Mr. Obama took office.

Indeed, since welfare’s creation, taxpayers have spent a staggering $16 trillion–more than the equivalent of America’s entire national debt–on public-assistance programs. Annually, federal and state welfare spending costs taxpayers $900 billion.

The recent explosion of the food stamp program, in part a response to the weak economy, has brought with it a spate of new tactics to defraud and abuse the program. The Wall Street Journal offers a sampling of the new methods of food stamp fraud:

• Earlier this month, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel revealed that Wisconsin food-stamp recipients routinely sell their benefit cards on Facebook. The investigation also found that “nearly 2,000 recipients claimed they lost their card six or more times in 2010 and requested replacements.” USDA rules require that lost cards be speedily replaced. The Wisconsin Policy Research Institute concluded: “Prosecutors have simply stopped prosecuting the vast majority of [food-stamp] fraud cases in virtually all counties, including the one with the most recipients, Milwaukee.”

• Troy Hutson, the chief of Washington state’s food-stamp program, resigned in April after a Seattle television station revealed that some food-stamp recipients were selling their cards on Craigslist or brazenly cashing them out on street corners (for 50 cents on the dollar) and using the proceeds for illegal drugs and prostitution. Washington state Sen. Mike Carrell complained: “Dozens of workers at DSHS [the Department of Social and Health Services] have reported numerous unpunished cases of fraud to me. They have told me that DSHS management has allowed these things to happen, and in some cases actively restricted fraud investigations.”

• Thirty percent of the inmates in the Polk County, Iowa, jail were collecting food stamps that were being sent to their non-jail mailing addresses in 2009. But Iowa could not prosecute them for fraud because the state’s food-stamp form failed to ask applicants whether they were heading for the slammer. Roger Munns, a spokesman for the Iowa Department of Human Services, told the Des Moines Register last year that asking such questions could make food-stamp applications “unwieldy.” (Many states do make such inquiries.)

Looser federal rules are spurring a bureaucratic crime wave. Last December, two veteran employees for New York City’s Human Resources Administration were busted for concocting 1,500 fake food-stamp cases that netted them $8 million. Nine Milwaukee, Wis., staffers plundered almost $300,000 from the program during the last five years, and a Louisiana state bureaucrat pleaded guilty last year for her role in a scam that snared more than $50,000 in fraudulent food-stamp benefits.

The Obama administration is responding by cracking down on state governments’ antifraud measures. The administration is seeking to compel California, New York and Texas to cease requiring food-stamp applicants to provide finger images.

• The food-stamp poster boy of 2011 is 59-year-old Leroy Fick. After Mr. Fick won a $2 million lottery jackpot, the Michigan Department of Human Services ruled he could continue receiving food stamps. The Detroit News explained: “If Fick had chosen to accept monthly payments of his jackpot, the winnings would be considered income, according to the DHS. But by choosing to accept a lump sum payment, the winnings were considered ‘assets’ and aren’t counted in determining food stamp eligibility.”

Adding to the outrage was the revelation federal agents made earlier this month when they discovered that a Seattle woman was receiving food stamps while living in a $1.2 million waterfront home.

Yet despite the widespread food stamp fraud and abuse, Ms. Ratner and her comrades appear more interested in playing the race card and resorting to ad hominem attacks against thoughtful reform efforts than confronting the realities of Mr. Obama’s expansion of an unsustainable welfare state.

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