Prevent fraud, but don’t hinder access

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Minnesota recently came under federal scrutiny over concerns about fraud in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (commonly known as SNAP or food support). As with many other assistance programs, SNAP benefits are provided via debit-style cards known as Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards.

Minnesota ranks fourth among states when it comes to issuing replacement cards frequently to the same recipient. Three percent of the state’s SNAP users request replacement cards four or more times per year.

At this point we don’t track why cards are being reported as lost or stolen. Many folks have legitimate challenges, such as dementia, mental illnesses, or homelessness, that lead to frequently-lost cards. The concern, however, is that some recipients are selling their EBT cards for cash and then seeking replacement cards.

The Department of Human Services is making some small common-sense changes to deter fraud and better track SNAP usage. If fraud becomes apparent, it can and should be prosecuted. However, we need to be sure that attempts to prevent fraud don’t harm the thousands of rule-abiding assistance recipients.

For instance, this session the Minnesota legislature proposed limiting EBT use to in-state only. That may seem reasonable at first glance, but what about the Moorhead SNAP recipient whose closest grocery store is in Fargo? Or the Duluth dweller who must travel to provide temporary care for a sick relative in Wisconsin?

After listening to recipients and advocates, the legislature limited EBT use to Minnesota and its surrounding states. Will this actually have any impact on SNAP fraud? We don’t know, especially since nearly all of EBT dollars are spent in Minnesota anyway.

When we hear about potential fraud in government programs our first reaction is to demand changes to prevent future waste. However, we must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Fraud comprises one percent of federal SNAP spending. If we go overboard to reduce that one percent, we also make it tougher for the 99 percent of law-abiding users to access their benefits. When one in ten Minnesotans lacks food security, our mission should be ending hunger, not throwing up reactionary barriers to beneficial programs.

We should also do a gut check: what bothers us more? The millionaire who steals thousands of dollars by claiming fraudulent tax deductions, or the SNAP recipient who illegally sells $100 in benefits? Both are unacceptably illegal. But we should focus our energies on what reduces misuse of government dollars the most, not on who we feel is more or less deserving.