Oh, SNAP. What Is the USDA Doing?

By Chandra Bozelko

May 3, 2019 5 min read

The way SNAP is being run is a recipe for crime.

SNAP is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, and it's become an indispensable anti-hunger program in the last 80 years.

Last Monday, the Supreme Court of the United States heard an oral argument in Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader Media. Back in 2011, the Argus Leader, a South Dakota newspaper, filed public records requests with the United States Department of Agriculture — the agency that runs SNAP — for data on how and where SNAP benefits are used. Reporters wanted to trace which companies make the most money from SNAP.

The USDA and food lobbyists have fought the reporters' requests for eight years. One of the main objections to releasing information on the taxpayer-funded program is that it may stigmatize businesses that cater to people who qualify for food assistance.

As of 2019, SNAP serves as many as 38 million adults and children and pays about $64 billion for their food. If there's a grocer out there that hasn't served one of these people or received a piece of this government pie, it's because it chooses to refuse SNAP payments. Smart stores welcome SNAP customers because it's good business. I can't swallow the USDA's stigma story.

I spit it out because, right around the same time as the argument before the Supreme Court, the USDA announced a pilot program through which beneficiaries can use SNAP with online grocery retailers such as Amazon, Walmart and ShopRite. It's designed to help single and working parents and other beneficiaries who can't get to the store.

I guess Amazon and Walmart are either so big that stigma can't stick to them, or they see a potential in a federal contract that outweighs the label — particularly since it's possible no interested citizen armed with a Freedom of Information form will ever uncover how much these corporations make off SNAP if the Supreme Court rules that USDA data can't be disclosed.

I've been around the system long enough to know that when government aligns with private interests against transparency, it's usually to cover dirty deeds. I predict a scandal will reveal itself within the SNAP program in the next two years. We'll find out that some corporate executives or government administrators have been breaking SNAP's bank. It won't be the recipients, even though they're usually blamed for entitlement hijinks.

The right-wing boogeyman of welfare treachery wakes up every Congress and scares conservative lawmakers into trying to limit social spending. In the process, he demonizes the poor by implying that they're perpetrators of crime just because they're in need.

The truth about the SNAP program is actually the opposite. It has one of the lowest rates of "mispayment" — technical term for receiving benefits you're not supposed to get — of all federal programs, and it is usually a caseworker error, not deceit of the beneficiary, that causes it. The country spends more money trying to ferret out SNAP fraud than it actually loses to SNAP fraud.

Those facts won't stop the continuing cuts to the program. Stopping deceit and abuse is what motivated the Trump administration to propose cutting $17.4 billion from SNAP for fiscal year 2020. The reduced budget allocation appeared alongside a rule proposed by the USDA Food and Nutrition Service to take back SNAP benefits from people who've been out of work.

The USDA is looking for newer, bigger commercial food frontiers for fewer SNAP beneficiaries. That smells rotten to me.

The irony of these SNAP plans is that food security is a potent crime fighter, particularly for those who've been released from prison, as nearly 650,000 people are every year. Because they emerge jobless and essentially penniless, it's estimated that as many as 91% of released prisoners are "food insecure," meaning they lack consistent access to food.

Food insecurity correlates highly with a return to illegal activities, according to a study conducted by Dr. Emily Wang and others at the Yale School of Medicine. A transparent, properly administered SNAP program has the potential to reduce crime.

Protecting the USDA's opacity while slashing the number of people who can receive the agency's benefits isn't just dumb. It's ultimately dangerous, as we'll see someday.

To find out more about Chandra Bozelko and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators website at www.creators.com.

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