What is the Fraud in the Food Stamp System?
Food Stamps, Snap, Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT). All are names of the program created for people who cannot afford enough food to support their families. When someone is given money for food by the government, you would think that they would treat it like gold, but that is not always the case. What is the fraud that is happening in the food tamp system in Wisconsin? Is there a way to prevent this fraud from happening, and why are people abusing this privilege?
According to Wisconsin Department of Health and Services 803,791 people in 2015 have been given food stamps. In order to receive food stamps a person needs to apply online at access.wisconsin.gov and fill out the application. Applicants need to know their social security number and, provide their name and contact information, information on the individuals living in the same household, and income information. After submitting the application there is a meeting with a caseworker, in which applicants need to give information about their income, citizenship, household expenses, and number of people living in the household.Meeting with a caseworker is necessary because every situation is different.
The main reason people are denied food stamps is their income. If an applicant makes more than 2,000 a month and has a household of 4 or less, they will have less of receiving any assistance. Once someone has qualified for food stamps they are able to use it like a credit card. The card is has the holder’s personal food stamp member number on in, just like a credit card. The card is not good for any non-food related items such as magazines, paper products, shampoo, hot and ready to eat deli items, some energy drinks, and items containing alcohol or tobacco. The card is only meant to help families provide food when otherwise they would struggle to come up with the money.
With so many people using food stamps in Wisconsin, there is likely be be some fraud. Some instances of fraudulent use of food stamps include applicants lying about their income or rearranging their lives so they qualify for food stamps. Current cardholders not reporting a change in income that would result in them ceasing to qualify for the government aid, or people trying to sell their own food stamp card on social media. Governor Scott Walker has taken an interest in those who have been abusing the food share system. Walker has made an effort with money and other resources to crack down with new strategies and a new system for people to report fraud and abuse within the food share program. There is now a hotline that can be called and a web portal that may be used to report any abuse anyone may have seen or suspected. In Walkers first year in office, 102 people were suspended for violating the program rules. This number increased to 1,184 in 2014.
Advocates for the food share system say that the state is being too harsh and people who desperately need the help are being punished. “There’s a lot of judgement going on by white, middle-class people and a lot of assumptions and disqualifications based on these assumptions,” said Pat DeLessio, an attorney with the Milwaukee Office of Legal Action Of Wisconsin. His office has helped those who receive aid fight against efforts to suspend their food share benefits. Sherrie Tussler, Executive Director of Milwaukee’s Hunger Task Force, thinks the state’s crackdown is bad “Its silly, it’s stupid, and its a way of manipulating public opinion. Everybody needs a scapegoat and it seems like the poor are the scapegoat in Wisconsin.”
Investigations into the food share program have grown since Walker has been in office. The office now has 107 employees and an annual budget of $12.6 million. In 2014 $1.1 million was found in fraudulent food share overpayments, and $675,448 in overpaid benefits. Governor Walker proposed in the 2015-2017 budget that food share recipients should be required to take a drug test before receiving benefits. It was also suggested that if a recipient be charged a $3.50 replacement fee when reporting a lost or stolen card. This was proposed because lost or stolen cards are reported about 130,000 times a year. The lawmakers also introduced a bill to speak a federal wavier that would require photos on the food stamp cards. Adding the photos would cost about $2 million dollars a year, but would help reduce the risk of fraudulent usage.In order to identify fraud, the state looks for putsches that are an even number or large purchases that are not made close to where the cardholder lives. If someone is accused of fraud and they go to court, the court needs to supply evidence of fraud for the recipient to lose their food card. The knows that the system for finding fraud is not always reliable, and the 2015-2017 budget requests to “expand and improve” the fraud fighting efforts.
Hal Menendez, an attorney with Legal Action of Wisconsin’s Madison office said most of the fraud that happens is only a mistake on the part of the person receiving food stamps. “Sometimes people forget to report a change in their income or are late in reporting,” Menendez said. If someone lies or is late to inform the government about a change in income they become are subject to suspension. Everyone who is subject to suspension has a right for a hearing before a judge. In most cases those who have a hearing are confused about what is happening end up signing a form to waive the hearing. This means that some people lose their benefits due only to confusion.
Fox 6 News, a local Milwaukee TV station did a news report on people selling and buying other peoples food stamp cards that belong to others. These people will usually post on local Facebook pages designed for buying and selling and ask for food stamps. Most people will pay 50 cents on the dollar for a food stamp card. One woman posted to No rule first/come first/online Racine/Kenosha Rummage sale Facebook page “Any body selling food stamps? Ill so $100 for $200” and she received responses from multiple people who were willing to sell their food stamp cards. Fox 6 found dozens of people who had posted similar things as Zetina.
“I think it is incredibly rampant. One of the frustrating things is that it’s so accepted. Everybody buys them and everybody sells them. No one stops to think that it’s wrong and that it is really taking food out of people’s mouths,” Assistant Milwaukee County District Attorney David Feiss, however, said. Feiss doesn’t think that its worth the time to go after the people committing the fraud. He thinks it would have more of an impact to go after the store owners that are letting people cash in their food cards. Some stores allow for customers to charge in their $100-$200 WIC checks (these are typically meant for formula, fruits and veggies, or other specifically named healthy food items for moms with young children) for $20-$50 cash and- some will throw in a pack of cigarettes. “It is a very easy crime to commit and it’s a very high-profit crime and the consequences to date have not been all that severe,” Feiss said.
An audit in 2012 showed that prisoners were receiving food stamps and people were spending them in states other than the one in which they should be receiving the aid. Additionally over 1,000 people ask for new food stamp cards every year. This is a red flag showing that someone may have sold their card to someone else for cash. Wisconsin is trying to crack down on people who have asked for more than six replacement cards in a year, suspecting fraud. 1,739 letters were sent, and 56 households have still continued to ask for replacement cards. The majority of people do not try and sell their food card for money or cigarettes, but the ones who do are creating difficulties for everyone else who is receiving help from the government. “No one minds giving out a helping hand — but we don’t want to be abused,” Feiss said.
Along with people selling their food card, a lot of people are upset about how people are using their food stamps. Usage of food stamps limits what recipients can, and cannot buy. Only food products can be purchased,meaning toilet paper, and other household items must be paid for using another method such as cash or credit. Cooking wine, energy drinks and hot, and ready-to-eat food items from the deli are also not covered with food stamps. I spoke with to Katy Von Der Heide, who has been a cashier at multiple grocery stores about how she has seen people spend their food stamps. “People use their food stamps to buy junk food, they think its cheeper. If they would plan their meals before shopping, they could plan meals that would be cheap as well as healthy.” Von Der Heide told me about people purchasing massive amounts of chips and soda, and very few fruit and veggies. This is not to say that everyone spends their food stamps like this, some people do buy healthy food, but that is overwhelming not the norm. Along with buying junk food, people also spend their food stamps on expensive fish and meat. Some people are upset that the government’s money is being spent on lobster and other expensive even luxury items. This brought about a bill that, if passed into a law, would limit what items can be bought with food stamps. Such limitations items include, shellfish, and spending more than on third of their food stamp allowance on items such as non-white potatoes and ketchup. Assembly bill 177 reads
The statutes; relating to: limiting the foods that may be purchased under
FoodShare; requiring a report on the cost to implement and comply with the
food limitations; requiring review, updating, and publication of the list of
authorized foods; providing an exemption from rule−making procedures; and
making an appropriation.
Under the law, the Department of Health Service (DHS) would require that no less than 67 percent the persons food stamp budget be used in a month be used to purchase any of the foods that are authorized by certified nutritionists. Some of these foods include fresh, frozen, or canned veggies; beef; pork; and chicken. This law would also not allow food stamp recipients to purchase lobster, shrimp, or other shellfish. Under the bill, DHS would be required to reimburse retailers and warehouse suppliers for the cost of the new requirements. The bill requires DHS to annually review and update if needed, to the food stamps site. A list of acceptable foods that could make up 67% of the recipients aid would also need to be made available on the food stamps website. If this law were to pass it would help recipients of food stamps make healthier choices when it comes to meals for themselves and their families.
Debra Camp, a front end lead at McFarland Pick N Save, has seen an increase in better spending, “Mostly good food products recently, a lot of meat products, and there are some people getting ready for the holidays.” Not all have been spending so wisely, though: “We have a couple of people who come in and fill their cart with junk food, meaning candies and potato chips.” Debra believes that there should be a stricter policy on the type of food that people can buy with food stamps, She also believes that toilet paper and diapers should be allowed to be purchased with food stamps, as they are a household necessity- unlike chips and candy. Camp sees a lot of the same people use food stamps, because Pick N Save is such a small store. She gets to know the customers and their normal spending habits.
Getting the perspective from someone on the outside is always easy, but it might be different from the inside. Stacey Engelke receives food stamps, and without them she wouldn’t know how to support her family. Engelke was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer at the beginning of the year and has since had to take time off of work. She is a single mother of three and currently receives $654.00 each month in food stamps. When she is working she receives $350.00 each month. Engelke likes to spend $300 every two weeks to try and balance out the money. Having kids, she spend the money on lunch meat, bread, milk, breakfast food, everyday family food. Engelke has had problems in the past with the money not resetting at the beginning of the month, but without EBT, she doesn’t know how she would feed her family. Every little bit helps, but when she is working she only gets $350.00 each month, not nearly enough to feed the family. She believes that she should receive more. Food stamps help Engelke as well as many other families, and its easy to judge how people are spending the money when you do not need assistance.
Rebecca Grailer, a social worker for the state of Wisconsin has had clients trade their food stamp card for drugs. Some would use their WIC products to trade for food stamps, bus tickets, or other services. Some of her clients would falsely claim more people lived in the house, in order to receive more money on their EBT card. Grailer also sees her clients use their food stamps at the closest corner store, for chips candy, and beverages. People use the closest and most convenient store, which might not be an actual grocery store, leading them to buy the not so healthy food at what may be a much higher price. Grailer has heard about the debate to have stricter limitations on what you can buy with EBT. She argues that “by limiting what food can be bought takes away people’s self-worth and dignity by not allowing people to make choices for themselves.”
In April, after the Wisconsin state law requiring participants that are in the food stamp program to look for work in order to stay in the program, took effect, 15,000 recipients were kicked out of the program. The law requires those who are in the program and are able to work and do not have children, to work at least 80 hours a month or look for work in order to stay in the program. According to The Wisconsin State Journal, about 25 percent of the 60,000 recipients who were eligible to work, were dropped from the program between July and September. Tussler, remarked that now people will have to rely on the food banks for food. “They will bankrupt our food banks,” said Tussler. Those people who have been kicked out of the program did have the training program for food stamp recipients available to them. 4,500 people took advantage of the program and found work, allowing them to keep receiving benefits. Milwaukee County houses about half of the able bodied participants without children. Data shows that seven percent of them found jobs with the FoodShare Employment and Training program the data shows. Beaver Dam Representative Mark Born, chairman of the Assembly’s committee on public reform, stated,
“The FSET program was created to help guide able-bodied adults back into the workforce, or put them on the path to gainful employment while remaining on FoodShare. So far we have seen thousands of individuals follow the FSET program and secure employment as a result. It is important we continue to enact reforms and transition people from reliance on government to independence.” A spokesperson for Governor Walker, Laurel Patrick, said “No one will be kicked off the FoodShare program if they are actively participating in the training program or meeting the work requirement.” The law was placed to help people find jobs, not to force them out of the program. As long as the participants are going along with the new rules, they will not lose their food stamp allowance. This is meant to benefit the economy as well as the recipient of the food stamps.
Food stamps have made families and individuals able to afford food, but that has come with a price. As with any government program, there have been some who have taken advantage of the program and some who have used the program for its true purpose. The Food Share program is continually changing and trying to improve, but the changes have not always been for the best in everyone’s eyes. The recent change that Governor Walker has made, will possibly cause food banks to possibly run out of food, leaving them dry during the busiest holiday times. The new program designed to help those on food stamps get jobs, is a good plan in theory, but there still are the people who don’t want to try. The government needs to find a better way to detect fraud in the food stamp program. Lying about how many people live in a household in order to receive more money is easy to do. Selling food stamps for drugs, alcohol, or other goods is also easy for any recipient.Does all the grade in the food stamp program outweigh the good that the program does?
Beck, Molly. “Benefit Program Looses 15k so Far.” Wisconsin State Journal [Madison] 29 Nov. 2015: n. pag. Print.
Camp, Debra. Personal interview. 10 Nov. 2015.
Davis, Stephen, and Meghan Dwyer. “Food Stamp and WIC Fraud Still “rampant” in Wisconsin despite State’s Efforts to Crack down.” FOX6Nowcom N.p., 16 Nov. 2014. Web. 09 Nov. 2015.
Engelke, Stacey. E-mail interview. 23 Nov. 2015.
Grailer, Rebecca. “How Have You Seen EBT Used?” E-mail interview. 7 Dec. 2015.
Lueders, Bill. “Wisconsin FoodShare Fraud Crackdown Questioned.” WisconsinWatchorg. N.p., 03 May 2015. Web. 04 Nov. 2015.
“Qualify for Food Stamps.” Qualify for Food Stamps. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Oct. 2015.
State of Wisconsin. 2015 ASSEMBLY BILL 177 (n.d.): n. pag. Web.
Von Der Heide, Katy. Personal interview. 10 Oct. 2015.