News From Terre Haute, Indiana

June 3, 2013

STATE OF THE STATEHOUSE: Requiring photo IDs for food-stamp users has already been tried

Maureen Hayden

INDIANAPOLIS — Voters in Indiana are required to show their photo IDs before they can cast their ballots. Should food stamp recipients in Indiana have to do the same when they go to the grocery store?

That’s one of the questions to be taken up this summer by a legislative study committee.

It’s on the long list of issues that lawmakers will look at this summer and fall as they move into their annual routine of studying complex or controversial issues that are not easily resolved during the deadline-driven regular session. This year, there are 18 commissions and committees assigned to examine a wide array of measures that could end up in legislative proposals next session.

Here’s one thing that lawmakers looking at the idea of requiring photo IDs for food-stamp users will find out: It’s been tried in other places and, so far, gotten nowhere.

Republican legislators in at least a dozen states have, without success, pushed similar proposals: They want people enrolled in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — as the modern-day food-stamp benefit is known — to prove who they are, with a photo ID, when they use their food-stamp card.

SNAP is a federally funded program, created so poor people wouldn’t go hungry (the federal income eligibility is 130 percent of the poverty level, and benefits average about $130 a month.)

But state legislators reason they have the right to add the photo I.D. requirement because the states administer SNAP and issue the electronic benefit cards — which look like bank debit cards — on which the food stamp benefits are disbursed.

So far, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees SNAP, has turned back those efforts by letting states know it won’t waive the federal rules that require stores to treat food-stamp users no different than anyone else.

The rules are in place for some reasons beyond the fact that poor people don’t always have I.D. Here’s one: Because food-stamps benefits are assigned to families, not individuals, requiring a photo ID could curb the ability of children of food-stamp card recipients to buy needed groceries.

What’s driving Republican legislators to push for the photo IDs anyway? The rapid growth of the SNAP program plus some disturbing reports of people trafficking their food-stamp cards, exchanging them for cash, drugs and guns.

There are about 48 million Americans getting food stamps now; that’s up from 28 million just five years ago. In Indiana, more than 925,000 people — about 14 percent of Hoosiers — are on the food stamp program. Fifteen years ago, it was closer to 100,000.

Senate Democrat Minority Leader Tim Lanane doesn’t oppose studying the photo I.D. requirement, but he’s wary of it. “I’d like to see us take a common-sense approach that doesn’t harm the people that the program was designed to help, most of whom are children.”

But based on those other states’ experiences, the real opposition may come from the other beneficiaries of the $80 billion food-stamp program.

In Illinois, Rhode Island, Maine and other states that have tried to push for a photo I.D. requirement for food-stamp users, it’s the lobbyists for the retail merchants, gas stations, grocery stores and local shops that have opposed it. They don’t want to deal with the headaches and extra work that a photo ID requirement would involve.


Maureen Hayden is the Indiana Statehouse bureau chief for CNHI, the parent company of the Tribune-Star. She can be reached at