Cheating and the hungry

The recent indictment of 10 Baltimore business owners or operators on charges of stealing more than $7 million from the food stamp program is a welcome development but badly timed. No doubt it will be used as fodder by House Republicans angling to take billions of dollars out of the mouths of poor people this week.

The scheme allegedly perpetrated by the Baltimore grocers is a familiar one. They accepted Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) cards from customers, charged them for inflated or phantom purchases, gave out cash and reserved the biggest cut of the phony transaction for themselves.

Such fraud ought to be prosecuted to a the fullest extent of the law. It's not only a case of ripping off taxpayers but it's taking advantage of families living in poverty and putting at risk a program that's vital for helping the nation's hungry.

How perfect for SNAP's critics that one of the stores involved is named "Second Obama Express," as it would seem to offer a shorthand for everything conservatives hate about food stamps — including the program's rapid growth during President Barack Obama's term in office as eligibility requirements were loosened. It suggests that waste, fraud and abuse is rampant and that misused SNAP debit cards are merely feeding crime and who knows what other urban ills.

Never mind that the facts show otherwise. Even with the program's growth — from $36 billion in 2008 to about $78 billion last year — such fraud is relatively rare, representing about 1.3 percent of transactions. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture has far more tools today to help spot fraud as transactions are tracked electronically and investigators can be alerted to unusual patterns of purchases.

Who are the food stamp customers? They are not the welfare queens Republicans like to claim, able-bodied slackers buying up lobster tails at the corner grocer. Most eligible households include at least one child, senior or disabled person. They live at or below the poverty line with the average gross income at $744 monthly. The average benefit amounts to $1.50 per person per meal. And undocumented immigrants are ineligible for the program.

That's not some generous disincentive to work — unless you're comfortable living on a few slices of white bread per day. Visit any Baltimore food bank. Most SNAP recipients have used up their benefits by the third week of the month. They are going hungry. That's the reality of an economy that still hasn't fully recovered from the Great Recession and where unemployment is still an alarming 7.3 percent nationwide.

Yet, enter House Republicans who, after failing to get support for a $20 billion cut in food stamps in the farm bill, are now pressing for a $40 billion reduction. These are the same politicians who were willing to pass a farm bill — and all its costly handouts to agribusinesses — but draw a line on actually feeding the poor.

Is this really the best place to cut the federal budget? Surely even the most cynical politician can understand why food stamps have proliferated in the midst of a recession and a recovery that has greatly boosted the wealthy but not yet filtered down to the poor. Tightening eligibility rules now will push as many as 4 million people off the rolls. That's a safety net hole that churches, charities and other private providers would be hard-pressed to repair.

If Republicans want to spend less on food stamps, there's a much easier way to do it: Make sure fewer people need them. Invest more in jobs and job training opportunities, raise the minimum wage, fund needed public infrastructure projects that put people to work and — listen up, House Speaker John Boehner — stop threatening to shut down the federal government over the debt ceiling and the defunding of Obamacare. So much uncertainty over federal spending is no help to the economy whatsoever.

Yes, SNAP benefits can be abused, the same way that criminals can find always ways to perpetrate fraud in both the public and private sectors. But that's trivial compared to the good that the program has done helping people, many of them children or elderly, receive some minimal level of nutrition on a daily basis. The time to reduce the food stamp program is when unemployment rate has fallen to acceptable levels, not when so many residents of the richest nation on the planet still don't have consistent access to sufficient food.

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