The Gazette Editorial Board
It’s troubling, but not surprising, to see the swelling ranks of Americans who are receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits — formerly known as food stamps.
After all, the program is designed to expand and contract with need. It makes sense that SNAP rolls would grow after several years of major economic and job market troubles.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture program remains a critical part of our nation’s basic safety net. Does that mean it is perfect? Hardly.
But critics’ concerns about fraud and abuse are best addressed by beefing up enforcement, not dramatically altering or slashing the program as some have suggested. SNAP is working as it’s supposed to in the vast majority of cases.
Still, the number of Iowans receiving SNAP benefits is up by 60 percent over the past five years — mirroring a national trend — and reaching 412,889 last month.
Some of that increase is because of expanded eligibility as of 2010, but more of it is increased need. And contrary to popular myth, a significant number of SNAP recipients who are eligible to work, do. According to USDA records, 75 percent of those who receive benefits for a year or less — and about 40 percent overall — live in households with job earnings. More than half of SNAP participants are children or elderly. Fewer than 10 percent of SNAP households also receive cash welfare.
It’s true that some users do try to game the system, but accusations of fraud and waste are often overblown. When he met with us this week, former Iowa DHS director Kevin Concannon — now USDA undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services — outlined a few favored scams and what is being done to prevent them.
Over the past 15 years, USDA’s enforcement efforts have reduced illegal trafficking of SNAP benefits from 4 percent to 1 percent — a record low. Still, that’s $800 million a year that’s misused.
We agree with Concannon — it’s preferable to step up efforts to weed out fraud rather than dramatic “fixes” like trying to micromanage every SNAP-eligible item in the grocery store.
There are plenty of anecdotes and urban legends that suggest that a lot of SNAP recipients use their benefit to buy junk food. But again, the data shows a relatively small difference between the food-buying habits of SNAP participants and higher-income Americans in general.
SNAP appears to be working largely as intended. And that’s good for thousands of struggling Iowans who rely on the benefit to keep their families fed.
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