As someone with decades of experience working in and around anti-poverty programs, I have witnessed firsthand the important role that government can play in helping families that are literally living from paycheck to paycheck. I have seen how the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, helps millions of responsible, hardworking Americans put food on the table for their families.
But that is not all SNAP does. It helps support jobs and provides a boost to the economy. And SNAP has a good story to tell when it comes to using taxpayer funds responsibly and wisely, one that unfortunately does not get told enough.
That is why it is so disappointing when sporadic abuses of the program by a select few are used as a political football in the media. Given most media coverage in recent weeks, you would think that lottery winners and criminals are the only Americans receiving SNAP benefits. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
In fact, abuses are the exception, not the norm. They overshadow the record achievements in SNAP for payment accuracy and program integrity, and do a disservice to the overwhelming majority that truly need the program and are playing by the rules.
For starters, people should understand that the record 44 million of our fellow Americans – more than half of whom are children, elderly and the disabled –participating in SNAP is due primarily to the fact that we are still recovering from the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression. We know it is right, and it is in the interest of all of us, to help them until they can get back on their feet.
SNAP benefits also provide an economic stimulus that strengthens communities. Research shows that every $5 in new SNAP benefits generates as much as $9.00 in economic activity. SNAP benefits move quickly into local economies, supporting and creating jobs for the Americans who grow, process, pack, ship, shelve and sell us food.
At the same time, USDA works very hard, in partnership with the State agencies that operate the program, to be a responsible steward of trusted taxpayer resources. Rooting out waste, fraud and abuse is a top priority for this administration. We do not tolerate fraud in SNAP at USDA, and prosecute those who attempt to game the system.
Due to increased oversight and improvements to program management by USDA, the prevalence of selling SNAP benefits for cash – a fraudulent activity known as “trafficking” – has fallen significantly over the last two decades to roughly 1 cent on the dollar today. Additionally, payment accuracy in SNAP is at an all-time high – over the last decade participation among eligibles has gone from 57 to 66 percent, while payment errors have gone from 8.91 to 3.81 percent. Simply put, participation is up, and errors are down – hallmarks of an efficient and effective program.
While these are positive trends, any trafficking or error is too much, and USDA continues to be aggressive in our efforts to improve integrity in SNAP. We use state-of-the-art technology to help target criminals. We receive ongoing risk assessments, using data down to the zip code level, of all stores that accept SNAP benefits based on their likelihood of committing program violations.
But we are not content to stop there. We are currently redesigning our fraud detection system with newer, more advanced data mining technology and analytical tools available in the private sector. These efforts will make us even better at getting rid of those who break the law and abuse the program.
Beyond pursuing fraud, USDA is also deeply committed to ensuring that benefits are targeted to those Americans who need them the most. That is why we have proactively urged states to use their current authority to change their state policies so that millionaires – or those receiving substantial windfalls – do not receive SNAP benefits.
These are just a few of the things we are doing at USDA every day to perform the job that America’s taxpayers have entrusted to us. And we are committed to doing even more. As our nation continues down its path of economic recovery we know that our work is cut out for us. But our sense of dignity and morality tells us that we must support hard-working Americans who are still struggling to meet their most basic nutritional needs. SNAP is an integral part of those efforts, which will stimulate the economy and help us grow a stronger nation for all Americans.
Kevin Concannon is Under Secretary, Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services.