* USDA adds social media, data mining to enforcement tools
* Official Warns against stricter eligibility rules
By Lisa Baertlein
LOS ANGELES, Feb 6 Stung by election-year
criticism of a program used by one in seven Americans,
administrators of U.S. food stamp benefits are intensifying
efforts to combat fraud and protect the $75.3 billion plan from
the budget axe.
Enrollment in the food aid program that helps the poor,
elderly and disabled is running at record high levels, with 46.1
million people now participating.
High joblessness, persistent woes in the housing market and
a tepid economic recovery have driven more that 14 million
people to sign up for the benefits since U.S. President Barack
Obama took office three years ago.
That number includes many displaced workers, who
are now attempting to eke out a living with low-wage or
part-time jobs. In many states, a family of four with net income
of just over $23,000 would qualify for food stamps.
The spike in enrollment prompted Republican presidential
candidate Newt Gingrich to dub Obama the "food stamp president"
and has fueled calls for cuts to assistance programs that
critics say are turning the United States into a welfare state.
In the face of such criticism, officials
responsible for food stamps are trumpeting the program's
efficiency and vowing further improvements.
Kevin Concannon, U.S. Department of Agriculture
undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, said
his agency was doubling efforts to prevent fraud, which accounts
for just 1 percent of food stamp benefits, but equals about $750
million each year.
"This is $750 million that isn't being used to provide food
to individuals and families and that issue isn't lost on us,"
Concannon said in a recent phone interview.
"We want to maintain the confidence of American taxpayers
because everyone is challenged in this economy - the payers as
well as the folks who are benefiting from the program," he said.
The program's biggest step forward in fraud prevention came
in 2004, when the government replaced paper coupons with plastic
cards that are loaded electronically like debit cards. In 2008,
the USDA changed the name of the program to the Supplemental
Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP, but the benefits are
still commonly referred to as food stamps.
Concannon said the program was adding high-tech strategies
to its enforcement quiver.
Those include working with social media firms and
data mining company SRA International Inc to root out abuse. It
also debuted a new website for public whistleblowers at
While administrators work to reduce payment
errors, the USDA is collaborating with state agencies to
investigate recipients suspected of committing fraud or misusing
benefits. It also will seek tougher penalties for stores engaged
Trafficking generally takes the form of users "selling"
their benefits for roughly 50 cents on the dollar to
brick-and-mortar retailers or to individuals found via websites
like eBay or Facebook.
From Oct. 1 through Dec. 31, the USDA sanctioned more than
225 stores found to be violating program rules and permanently
disqualified 350 stores for trafficking in SNAP benefits ,
a roughly 14 percent increase in disciplinary actions
"Fraud is not a static concept -- we know that where there
is a will to commit malfeasance, bad actors will try to find a
way," Concannon said.
Concannon and other supporters of the food stamp program are
also warning against efforts by some states to toughen
eligibility rules. The program is funded by the federal
government but administered at the state level.
Programs in 36 states as well as the District of Columbia,
Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands have no asset test for food
Such rules came under scrutiny last year, when it came to
light that a Michigan man who won a $2 million lottery jackpot
was collecting food stamps under a state loophole that counted
only income, not assets. The man took his winnings in a lump
sum, which categorized them as assets.
Michigan has since closed the loophole and adopted an asset
Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett has proposed denying food
stamps to households with assets of more than $5,500. The limit
would be $9,000 for households that include a person who is
disabled or age 60 or older. His original proposal, which had
significantly lower asset limits, hit a wall of resistance from
anti-hunger advocates, who called it unusually punitive.
Some U.S. lawmakers have called for asset tests for all
Concannon said the food stamp program was designed to help
people weather tough times brought on by a job loss or illness.
Requiring participants to exhaust their resources in order to
qualify for benefits could leave them in a weakened position
when the economy recovers, Concannon said.
"We would caution states to be wary of just running down the
road without thinking through the impact on their citizens,
especially in what is still a tough jobs economy," he said.