City Desk

Food Stamp Fraud: Complicated!

In this Post piece about the Obama administration going after food stamp fraud—a lot of it is being committed by small retailers who are keeping money they shouldn't—one alleged kind of beneficiary fraud struck me as fairly ridiculous:

In other cases, beneficiaries who receive monthly deposits of food aid on to plastic cards similar to bank cards intentionally use SNAP benefits to purchase water or other beverages with bottle deposits, dump the liquid and then obtain cash for bottle deposits.

The Post doesn't break down the percentage of fraud by type—instead it gives about equal space to fraud committed by retailers and fraud committed by beneficiares—but I have to think that if people are doing this, it only accounts for a tiny percentage of SNAP fraud.

Consider: If a person gets $126 in food stamps each month, and they spend all of that money on bulk-purchased bottled drinks, then they're probably spending around $0.20 a bottle (less if it's bottled water, but not all bottle deposit programs accept water bottles). Dump the liquid and turn in the bottles and they're getting $0.05 back. That means that from the $126 that can be spent on food, they'll get $31.50 back in cash (double that in states where bottles go for $0.10). Which, granted, is nothing to sneeze at, but considering that families on food stamps often start to run out before the end of the month (as evidenced in any 24-hour grocery store at 12:01 on the first of the month), I find it hard to believe that anyone's doing this in great numbers.

And it's strange that the paper of record is giving so much ink to it, without any numbers (they do note that 8,300 retailers have been disqualified from accepting benefits in the last decade because of fraud).

Besides, only 10 states and one territory have bottle deposit bills. (And D.C. isn't one of them.)

Obviously, beneficiary fraud happens—I know one person who says he used to buy his neighbor's benefits for cash (even though as a struggling writer, he was eligible himself)—but focusing on weirdly complicated and not-that-fruitful forms of it does little more than reinforce stereotypical ideas about the kind of people who use the benefits.

Photo by Rex Roof via Flickr/Creative Commons Generic Attribution 2.0 License

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  • Jane

    You may have a point, but the comments are refreshingly absent of the typical "Black thugs and welfare queens!!1!!!" you see so often in Post comments, so I'll take it.

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