Crime

Welfare Leeches Put On Notice As Congress Investigates Food Stamp Fraud

Congress wants the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to study the food stamps program to stop fraud and abuse in the $67 billion program.

Utah Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, asked for three reports of the food stamps program in letters sent Wednesday, focusing on retailer trafficking, the effectiveness of job training programs in getting food stamps recipients back in the workforce, and abuse of benefits across state lines.

More than 44 million people received Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, or food stamps, in 2016, and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that around 1.5 percent of the $67 billion benefits paid out goes to fraud, according to a recent audit.

The best chance Congress will have to reform the food stamps program will be in drafting the next Farm Bill, which authorizes the USDA’s spending, due to be passed in 2018.

One of the requested reports will address retailer fraud within the food stamps program, where stores will accept SNAP benefits and reimburse welfare recipients in cash or ineligible items. The GAO has not specifically reviewed retailer food stamps trafficking since 2006, when it found several ways to prevent fraud in the program. Nearly 10 percent of stores that accept food stamps engage in this type of fraud, according to a USDA report in 2013.

The Oversight Committee wants the GAO to analyze the effects of USDA’s efforts to track and prevent retailer trafficking, which wastes around $858 million each year, according to a 2013 USDA report.

USDA has implemented some measures to address store trafficking, like “analyzing SNAP purchase data to identify suspicious transactions, conducting undercover investigations, a collaborating with other investigative agencies,” but, “data suggests that despite these efforts, trafficking continues to be a problem,” the Oversight Committee said in a letter to GAO.

The size of the food stamps program is also a critical issue to Republicans in Congress. After President Barack Obama allowed states to waive work requirements for food stamps recipients after the Great Recession, the program exploded to 47 million people in 2012.

As work requirements are being reinstated across the country, food stamp recipients have to prove they are working at least 20 hours a week, or are being trained for work, in order to stay on food stamps longer than three months. The Oversight Committee wants GAO to review whether the USDA’s taxpayer-funded education and training pilot programs, authorized by the 2014 Farm Bill, are actually working.

Some states partner with private non-profits to provide training programs, schools and colleges, in addition to public employment resources, raising the possibility of duplication and waste of taxpayer funds, the Oversight Committee said in its letter.

Republicans in Congress are not likely to make major cuts to food stamps, according to a December report from the House Committee on Agriculture on the welfare program.

GOP leaders also hope to have the help of  President-elect Donald Trump in reforming the program, though he hasn’t said he would cut or make major reforms to food stamps during his campaign. In his 2011 book, “Time to Get Tough,” however, Trump said that “when half of food stamp recipients have been on the dole for nearly a decade, something is clearly wrong, and some of it has to do with fraud.”

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