The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) ads in the District of Columbia were hard to miss. Posters begging passersby to help “STOP SNAP FRAUD!” replaced the usually more innocuous ads in Washington’s Metro system. While many of the ads were in underground subway stations, buses were also wrapped in fraud prevention ads. They plastered the Capitol South metro station, too—the one used by many legislative staffers—as Congress is gearing up to renew the farm bill, the massive legislation that may contain sweeping changes to SNAP, the program commonly known as food stamps.
The nation’s capital has a progressive population (just 4 percent of the city’s votes went to Trump in 2016), so these ads did not go over well. SNAP fraud, after all, is a relatively uncommon phenomenon in the District of Columbia and elsewhere. In 2016, out of 1,000 completed investigations of the city’s roughly 134,000 SNAP recipients, officials found only 134 clear-cut cases of fraud—a fraud rate of a tenthof a percentage point. The national rate is not much higher.
Washington residents, organizations, and elected officials criticized the ads and complained to the D.C. Department of Human Services (DHS), the agency that administered the ad campaign. George Washington University’s Food Institute published an article saying that the ads “were not reflective of D.C. values.”
Metro riders did not think much of the ads either and came up with some pithy edits.
— Tazra Mitchell (@TazraMitchell) April 13, 2018
The official D.C. DHS Twitter account responded to complaints about the ads by saying that D.C. was “federally mandated to educate SNAP customers on fraud and penalties.”
About two weeks into the ad campaign, the D.C. DHS announced that it would take the ads down. “[The ad campaign] came across as punitive, when really it was supposed to be about education,” says D.C. DHS Chief of Staff Larry Handerhan. “Our goal was to protect our clients … not to accuse them, not to suggest they’re criminals.” The agency moved to invited local anti-hunger groups to a stakeholder meeting to discuss what happened and where the agency went wrong—and how they could avoid making similar mistakes in the future.
In a “statement to the community,” human services department officials had admitted that the ads “missed the mark.” The department added, “This campaign was 100 percent funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service for the explicit purpose of educating residents on ways to ensure the program can meet its goal of addressing food insecurity.”
While it may be tempting to punt responsibility for the ads to Trump officials, the D.C. DHS decided to apply for a $3 million federal grant whose requirements mandate“awareness programs aimed at reducing and preventing SNAP fraud, trafficking, and misuse of benefits.” (In addition to the District of Columbia, Delaware, Indiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, West Virginia, and Guam also received funding for 2018 public awareness campaigns.)
Washington received a $272,000 grant; city officials said the ad campaign alone cost about $80,000. The D.C. DHS did not use the USDA logo in the advertisements and a USDA spokesperson told The American Prospect via email that the department “did not have any creative input in the D.C. ad.”
Many social welfare advocates argue that fighting fraud is just a way for conservatives to limit social spending—and that depicting welfare beneficiaries as criminals not only demonizes the poor, but also discredits public assistance programs. But many progressives also resort to fraud prevention arguments to protect the “integrity” of anti-poverty programs so that rampant abuse is not used as a reason to attack those supports. The D.C. DHS used “protection” language in its statement about the anti-fraud ads, arguing that the purpose of the campaign was to “educat[e] residents on ways to ensure the program can meet its goal of addressing food insecurity.”
So can anti-poverty advocates chalk up the anti-fraud advertising crusade to Trump’s war on the poor? Not exactly—this grant program is similar to others that the USDA has sponsored in the past. The fight against SNAP fraud was a part of the Obama administration’s “Campaign to Cut Waste.” Another SNAP fraud awareness campaign, sponsored by the Indiana Family Social Services Administration (FSSA) in 2016 and 2017, included ads with slogans like, “Turn your radar on. Detect fraud,” and “Only for food. Only for you.”
Other states have set up anti-fraud initiatives on their own: Massachusetts and Maine both require photo identification on Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards, though there is little evidence that this reduces trafficking, the practice of exchanging benefits for cash.
Of course, that does not mean that the Trump administration isn’t ramping up its targeting of fraud at the expense of other anti-hunger or nutrition initiatives. Trump’s USDA has shifted its aims to an “enhanced focus on program integrity,” announcing in March that it was planning to create a new position: a “chief integrity officer.” “Integrity” is a more formal, and less provocative, way of saying “waste, fraud, and abuse.” “Where protection of taxpayer dollars is concerned—the job is never done,” FNS Administrator and USDA Acting Deputy Undersecretary Brandon Lipps said in a statement. (At a recent anti-hunger conference in Washington, Lipps said that Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue was interested in SNAP cuts to help trim the federal deficit—the deficit that Republicans increased by $1.4 trillion after passing the tax reform package. Conference attendees responded by booingLipps when he spoke about the USDA’s Harvest Box proposal.)
But SNAP fraud is extremely rare: It was more prevalent when food stamps were actually stamps. Today benefits are loaded onto an EBT card, similar to a debit card, which makes the buying and selling of food stamp funds difficult. In an appearance before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in 2016, Stacy Dean, vice president for food assistance policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said, “The overwhelming majority of SNAP errors that do occur result from mistakes by recipients, eligibility workers, data entry clerks, or computer programmers, not dishonesty or fraud by recipients.” She added that only about 1 percent of benefits are trafficked.
Handerhan says that one goal of the ad campaign was to publicize a fraud reporting hotline, so if a person sees something suspicious they can call “professionals who can look into this.” But this “see something, say something” approach opens the door for reports based on (often racist) stereotypes of people in poverty.
And even honest mistakes can force a person to lose benefits. “Clients don’t know they’re breaking the rules, and all of a sudden they’re losing benefits that they’re eligible for because they didn’t realize what a program violation was,” says Handerhan. “You can get punished regardless of your intent, so the idea is really to make sure clients understand [the rules].”
He explains that a person could buy some fruit with their benefits, make a fruit salad, and then sell it. That SNAP recipient may not know it, but that’s considered fraud, as is having someone get your groceries who isn’t officially designated to shop for you. Retailers, too, sometimes engage in SNAP fraud, either by exchanging a person’s SNAP benefits for cash (and taking a cut of the money) or by submitting false information to qualify as a SNAP outlet even though the business does not meet the program’s requirements for retailers.
D.C. DHS plans to use the rest of its grant funds, a little less than $200,000, to educate SNAP clients on the regulations, using pamphlets detailing SNAP rules, and using public service announcements at locations where clients get their benefits. Handerhan says that after the ad backlash, DHS decided to get input from anti-hunger stakeholders, like the George Washington University Food Institute, to help develop these new initiatives and from SNAP clients themselves to help “test the messaging.”
DHS has also solicited client input regarding other programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, according to Handerhan. “I think we missed the mark on the advertisements, but I know we have an opportunity to make that up and really focus on the education,” he says.
Despite these kinds of efforts, many anti-hunger advocates argue that the focus on SNAP fraud, like the Trump administration’s hiring of a chief integrity officer, distracts from honest conversations about poverty and hunger. Few people on SNAP misuse their benefits, but one would be hard-pressed to believe that watching some conservative news commentators foam at the mouth at the mere mention of SNAP fraud.
“Is a client guide even the right way to get to the issue?” asks Ariel Kagan, a senior researcher at the Food Institute and author of the institute’s critique of the Metro ads, noting that retailers are a key source of SNAP fraud. “If we really want to make SNAP fraud and abuse go even further down—and it’s pretty much at zero—thinking about policies and programs and campaigns that actually get to the issues that are happening and not just villainizing SNAP users [would be] a good idea.”
And here’s an essential point: Though it rarely happens, consider why a SNAP recipient would choose to sell their SNAP benefits for cash. SNAP can only be used for food, not other necessities that require cash, like toiletries or diapers. If a person is eligible for SNAP, that means their income is typically at or below 130 percent of the poverty line, or $26,600 annually for a family for three. And according to a 2014 study, in 2004 just 10 percent of families receiving SNAP also received cash assistance, as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families reaches less than a quarter of people in poverty. Nearly all of our public assistance programs limit the agency of poor people by focusing on in-kindbenefit transferslike food stamps, instead of cash assistance.
The federal government should instead focus on making it easier for people to live without having to use SNAP in the first place, which means policies like strengthening worker protections and higher wages, or once-radical ideas like a guaranteed annual income or a guaranteed job program.
“My feeling is that DHS should be making sure that every person who is eligible for SNAP receives it,” says Kagan. “They should be serving the people in D.C. who need this help to get ahead.”