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The Weekly Standard Accidentally Makes the Case for Food Stamps

Conservatives may have a new talking point in their crusade to downsize the food stamp program. And it's even more absurd than the previous ones.

The Department of Agriculture on Thursday released a report about trafficking in the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP. Trafficking is when people sell their SNAP credits, rather than use them to buy food. And apparently it's on the rise, as the Weekly Standard reported this morning. "Food Stamp Trafficking Up 30% From 2008 to 2011," the headline on a new item reads.

A 30 percent increase—that sounds bad! But look a little more closely. Thanks to that increase in the fraud rate, trafficking is all the way up to … wait for it … 1.3 percent. And while that’s higher than a few years ago, when the rate was just 1.0 percent, it’s still significantly lower than it was in the 1990s, when the rate peaked at 3.8 percent. 

The Weekly Standard item, by Jeryl Bier, acknowledges that fact, but tries to place it in context. "While the rate, as a percentage, remains relatively low,” Bier writes, “the sharp increase in the SNAP program means the total annualized dollar amount of fraud reached a record level of $858 million, exceeding the $811 million from 1993.” This is true. It’s also true that enrollment in the SNAP program has dramatically increased over that period of time, so an increase in the nominal amount of money lost to trafficking was inevitable. But $858 million in a program that costs more than $70 billion? That isn't exactly a lot of money.

That rising enrollment, and the cost of supporting it, is what has conservatives so angry in the first place. But there’s a very good reason enrollment has swelled so much: More people need the assistance. SNAP usage has tracked the poverty level pretty closely, with only a small and temporary bump during the recession. As for paying the lazy to stay at home—which is what SNAP critics frequently say the program does—four out of five people on SNAP are either working or can’t work because they are children, senior citizens, or have disabilities. All programs attract some freeloaders and, surely, SNAP has its share. But the vast majority of people on SNAP need the help, particularly when decent-paying jobs are so hard to find.

Maybe that’s why conservatives keep trying to attack the program in other ways, like insisting the program is full of waste. But the numbers don’t back up that claim, either. As figures compiled by the Center on Budget and Policy Priority show, SNAP has low overhead, with 95 percent of the funding going directly to benefits. Incorrect payments are infrequent: In 2011, the total error rate was 5 percent, down from 10 percent in 1990. And a third of that was underpayment—i.e., people getting even less than they should.

Meanwhile, and more important, the program seems awfully good at doing what it is supposed to do: keep low-income people from going hungry or struggling even more financially. In 2011, according to the Center’s analysis, "SNAP kept about 4.7 million people out of poverty in 2011, including about 2.1 million children. SNAP also lifted 1.5 million children out of deep poverty (defined as 50 percent of the poverty line) in 2011, more than any other government assistance program." Research by Kathryn Edin from Harvard and Luke Shaefer at the University of Michigan, two of the country’s leading scholars of poverty, has found that SNAP alone significantly reduces the number of households with children living on $2 a day. And new research from Shaefer, collaborating with Italo Gutierrez, suggests that SNAP significantly reduces the likelihood that low-income families will fall behind on other expenses, like rent and utilities.

None of which is to say that outright abuse is non-existent. Google news stories for "food stamp fraud" and you’ll pull up pages of hits—most of them involving convenience store owners who buy SNAP debit cards at 60 or 70 cents on the dollar, and then redeem them to the federal government at full value. Sometimes people sell food stamps to each other, rather than to stores. But in many of these cases people are selling the credits to pay for other necessities. And all programs, public or private, are vulnerable to exploitation.

The key is minimizing waste and abuse, while providing help to people who need it—things SNAP seems to do as well as any program you’ll find, public or private. An equally valid headline on Thursday’s report might have been “Food stamp trafficking remains near historic lows.” 

Of course, then people might get the idea that a government program works—and that cutting the program's funds, as Republicans are now proposing, is a really bad idea.

Follow Jonathan on twitter @CitizenCohn