On June 20, Department of Transitional Assistance Commissioner Stacey Monahan completed a brief stint on food stamps, learning firsthand what it’s like to stave off hunger with $31.50 per week in public money. But battles over the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, as it is officially called, were just getting started.
The Massachusetts Senate approved reforms to the department, which came in response to a report from State Auditor Suzanne Bump detailing $2.4 million in benefits abuse and another $15.6 million in suspicious payments made with electronic benefits transfer numbers and cards.
The Senate plan reportedly costs more than $20 million and includes funding for new caseworkers, employment training, and child-care services. It would also require picture IDs on EBT cards.
Some of these are good ideas. Accessible, high-quality child services are essential to improving the prospects of the poor. Employment training can be helpful, although lack of work is not the only problem facing Americans who rely on food stamps. According the US Department of Agriculture’s most recent survey of households receiving SNAP benefits, 41 percent of recipients live in households with income but they are still poor enough to qualify for assistance. If job training can only get poor people into low-wage jobs, they may continue to rely on SNAP.
Funding for additional caseworkers is also a good idea, and it gets at the fundamental concern raised in the auditor’s report. The Department of Transitional Assistance, according to the report, had all of the data necessary to find the abuse and prevent it. But it didn’t, in part for lack of manpower. As the number of benefits recipients roughly doubled during the recession, the department’s caseworker staff actually shrank slightly. Benefits managers could not keep up with the strain of poverty in the state.
The photo ID requirement, unlike other elements of the bill, is nothing short of egregious. To see why, consider the fraud and potential fraud numbers in detail.
On its face, $18 million in possible fraud is jarring. But in the context of the system as a whole it’s practically nothing. The audit covered three initiatives providing $1.7 billion in benefits, most of it federal money. If all $18 million is truly wasted, that means 99 percent of the benefits are going where they’re supposed to.
But, in fact, it’s not clear how much of the $15.6 million in suspicious transactions was lost to fraud. The total fraud may represent as little as 0.14 percent of the benefits outlay — the $2.4 million detailed by Bump.
Let’s assume the real figure is somewhere in the middle. This is a fair assumption given the sources of potential fraud. The audit focused on several kinds of suspicious transactions, such as the use of EBT cards to make even-dollar purchases — which are rare at grocers and may point to merchants illegally exchanging benefits for cash — and manual entry of EBT account numbers, which may have been illegally acquired.
Neither these nor any of the other forms of potential fraud highlighted by the audit involve illegal point-of-sale purchases by individuals using cards that don’t belong to them, the only kind of fraud that a photo ID could prevent. As Bump told the House Oversight Committee, the known fraud is a product of the Department of Transitional Assistance’s “failure to properly review the Social Security database.” Meanwhile, the department had all it needed to investigate the $15.6 million in suspicious payments. “It’s something that had already been within DTA’s capacity to do, and they simply weren’t doing it,” Bump told the Oversight Committee. In other words, the Senate has budgeted $5 million for photo IDs to solve a problem that no one has found.
The photo ID requirement is not merely wasteful but also needlessly punitive. At a time when Boston Mayor Thomas Menino is urging federal lawmakers to prevent the use of EBT cards for purchasing sugary sodas, poor people receiving benefits are being targeted for control. These controls are intended, outwardly, to prevent abuse and improve nutrition, but they subject beneficiaries to surveillance and constraints on liberty that they don’t deserve to bear.
Purchasing limitations and surveillance may be justified if you see SNAP as a taxpayer-funded charity. In that case, the public might reasonably exercise invasive control to prevent abuse and ensure that the narrow aims of the program — providing nutrition, which a can of Coke doesn’t — are met.
But SNAP is not a charity to be withdrawn or repurposed for punishment. It is a mechanism for chipping away at structural inequalities that deny poor people opportunities to prosper. If equality of opportunity is ever to be a reality, then easy access to food is the bare minimum owed to poor people.
Simon Waxman is managing editor of Boston Review.