TERRE HAUTE —
Waste and fraud in government programs should be rooted out vigilantly.
Legislation should fix a problem with a fitting solution, not punish the needy.
Those two objectives must guide an Indiana General Assembly committee studying a proposal to require food stamp recipients to show a photo ID when they go to the grocery store. The idea, pushed by Republican state legislators, will be reviewed this summer and fall by a committee of lawmakers and could wind up as a bill during the Legislature’s 2014 session. In their offseason study, Hoosier legislators should focus on facts, not exaggeration.
The commonly used term “food stamps” refers to the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, created to keep poor people from going hungry. Today, a SNAP recipient is issued an electronic benefits card, similar to a bank debit card, and slides it through the checkout machine at a store. U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines currently require stores to treat SNAP recipients no differently than anyone else.
One of the primary reasons SNAP cardholders are handled equally goes to the heart of the program’s intent — feeding kids. Food-stamp benefits are assigned to families, not individuals. Requiring a photo ID could prevent children in a SNAP family from buying needed groceries. Also, the head of their household — as is the case with many low-income folks — may not possess a state-issued photo ID.
So, why would Indiana legislators try to impose a photo-ID requirement for food stamps after fellow Republicans in a dozen other states failed to enact similar measures? Reports of fraud incidents in a vast federal program understandably aggravate taxpayers. Those illegalities include SNAP cards being trafficked for cash, drugs and guns. The government has a responsibility to track down and prosecute those offenders.
But the vast majority of families receiving SNAP assistance are not scamming the system; the fraudulent use of food stamps is rare and decreasing, according to the USDA, from 4 percent in 1998 to 1 percent today. The ranks of the recipients have indeed grown, from 28 million Americans five years ago to 48 million now. The numbers are up in Indiana, too, from 100,000 recipients 15 years ago to 925,000 in 2013, or 14 percent of Hoosers.
There’s a valid reason for that growth — the recession. Fifteen years ago, the U.S. economy was surging. By contrast, more people lost jobs after the recession hit in 2007 than at any time since the 1930s. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office affirmed the key cause of the increase in SNAP participants was the recession of 2007-09 and the economy’s subsequent slow recovery. Twenty percent of the increase reflects a temporary rise in benefits triggered by the 2009 Recovery Act, which expires later this year. CBO projections call for SNAP’s growth to slow in coming years.
A photo-ID-for-food-stamps law would certainly carry a “hell-yeah” appeal at election time, characterized as an appropriate crackdown on what some believe is a growing legion of Americans expecting “something for nothing.”
That picture is inaccurate. Most households with kids receiving the average $130 monthly SNAP benefit (62 percent) included a working-age adult employed that month, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. More than 90 percent of federal food and health care assistance programs benefit the elderly, the center reported.
In other states, retail merchants (who also benefit from SNAP purchases) opposed photo ID laws because of the extra work their employees would incur. Indiana stores undoubtedly would share those concerns. Beyond that logistical worry, the greater fear is that Indiana could impose a law — under the guise of fraud prevention — that would have the unintended consequence of making it harder for needy families to buy food.