It was big news in Oregon last week when a local TV reporter discovered he could use a supplemental nutrition card to buy a Starbucks frappuccino. In Washington, Republicans suggested that banning millionaires from becoming eligible for food stamp benefits could help finance an extension of the payroll tax cut.
And even here in Maryland, local talk show hosts were wagging their fingers over a recent report that Maryland has a relatively high food stamp overpayment rate of 6.11 percent, a problem that is far more attributable to administrative error than fraud.
Remember the outrage over the "welfare queens" of the 1980s? Well, apparently it's time to roundly condemn those who are taking advantage of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, a type of taxpayer-subsidized relief to the poor that dates back to the 1930s.
Surely there are some food stamp recipients who are providing false information in order to receive benefits they are not due. And there are probably even more who are making poor nutritional choices (and vendors who are making sure their luxury products are eligible for the program, too). And, by the way, a frappuccino isn't the only questionable item that can be so purchased; a lot of junk food and soft drinks make the cut, too.
In reality, the USDA and state human resource agencies have never had more tools at their disposal to detect fraud. In Maryland, for instance, there are 13 databases that are cross-checked with every application. The program has grown in recent years not because there's more fraud but because a great deal more people are genuinely eligible.
And what does it get those deemed eligible? On average nationwide, about $133 per month per person, or slightly more than $4 per day. Blow it on a frappuccino, and that's one less day's worth of food. Maryland's 645,349 recipients actually receive slightly less per month than the national average, according to the most recent USDA data.
So while we would applaud any government actions that discourage fraud and encourage good nutrition, there's no sign the program has exactly run amok. That SNAP must help feed more than 40 million Americans at an annual cost of $64 billion only underscores the hardships created by the largest economic downturn since the Great Depression.
More troubling is the instinct of some to so self-righteously condemn SNAP participants as freeloaders or criminals on little or no evidence (a majority of recipients are actually children or the elderly). But that seems to be a trend of late. When the poor and middle class object to the preferential treatment afforded the rich, it's class warfare. When the affluent complain that the working poor don't pay federal income taxes (neglecting to mention that the poor often pay a far higher percentage of their income in other taxes)? Well, that's just another day at Fox News.