The GOP's Proposed SNAP Verify Act Hurts America's Poor

When I was putting together my list from a few weeks back regarding how Republicans feel about food stamp recipients (spoilers: the feelings are not really all that great), one of the folks I mentioned in the intro was Senator David Vitter from Louisiana. That's not because he said anything specifically hateful about those on SNAP -- unlike, say, Sarah Palin -- but because of his recommendation that people collecting food stamps should be forced to show ID when purchasing groceries.

And now, that idea's finally made its way into the House with an official proposal for the SNAP Verify Act. Which means it's time to discuss how hateful this proposal really is.

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On the surface, the case for photo ID at the point of sale is full of logic. It will finally put an end to problem of food stamp fraud! No more will poor people scam the system! If a person's forced to show identification when they buy groceries, people who shouldn't be using them won't be able to do so!

(Sidenote: The main method of food stamp fraud is recipients selling their SNAP for cash, presumably for less than they're actually worth, in order to use the money on items that are not food. The GOP paints all of these black market dealings as involving money that goes towards illicit activities like drugs and prostitutes, but in reality a lot of it goes towards "luxurious items" like gasoline.)

Since we're using logic then, it only makes sense to ask how many people are defrauding the system. The answer: Not a whole lot.

To be exact: A little over 1% of food stamps issued are sold on the black market. This means that the SNAP program has less fraud than Medicare or Medicaid, neither of which Republicans are getting all up in arms over. So, while the immense magnitude of the program means any percentage of fraud is a big deal -- the Farm Bill that President Obama just signed allocates $80 billion a year to food stamps, which, if the 1% fraud rate holds, means $800 million in food stamps will end up on the black market every year -- that doesn't mean the system is one that's spiraling way out of control.

But, forcing SNAP recipients to show ID will certainly cut down on this number a tad. (Unless you take into consideration that anyone with access to a decent printer, a lamination machine, and a pair of scissors can put together an ID card that will probably pass inspection at the check out line.) The next question, then, is to determine how many people this new system will hinder when they buy groceries. And that answer's simple: A whole lot.

Deborah Weinstein, executive director of the Coalition on Human Needs,
summed it up perfectly in an interview last month:

Many poor people do not have photo ID's, and it costs money they do not have to get them. Senator Vitter's proposal will be especially tough on elderly and poor people who do not have the documents needed to get their photo ID, and who will struggle even to get to the necessary offices. They will wind up going without food.

Going one step further, Weinstein makes a suggestion that if the government was really worried about fraud, they should take it up with the contractors that the state governments utilize to oversee the program -- for example, charge them fees if food stamp fraud happens on their watch -- rather than taking it out on the already-struggling poor. Which is simply common sense.

It's hard not to compare this issue to the battle being waged over whether or not people should be forced to show ID when voting. In that case, the battle lines are drawn roughly the same way: Republicans calling for ID, Democrats claiming it's an unfair fiscal barrier. It's easy to understand why the two parties have chosen their sides in that one, seeing as Republicans don't benefit from disenfranchised folks at the polls, as they tend to dramatically vote Democrat. (And vice versa.)

But as far as the food stamp ID argument goes, the question remains to be answered: How exactly does the Republican party benefit from fewer Americans being able to eat?

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About the Author

Rick Paulas has written plenty of things, some of them serious, many of them not, scattered over the vast expanses of the Internet. He lives in Los Angeles and is a White Sox fan.
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