Cross posted from Politico:
As agriculture undersecretary and a former director of state Health and Human Services departments in Maine, Oregon and Iowa, I know the importance of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps. In today's difficult economic times, this vital program helps families across the nation put food on the table.
Despite a rash of recent stories about food stamp fraud, the facts are that the Agriculture Department has a zero tolerance policy on this. We aggressively pursue those trying to take advantage of America's compassion for people in need.
First-quarter results of our anti-fraud efforts demonstrate this commitment. From Oct. 1 to Dec. 31, 2011, we penalized — with fines or temporary disqualifications — more than 225 stores that violated program rules and permanently disqualified more than 350 stores caught trafficking food stamp benefits.
We're now stepping up our efforts. I announced in December new anti-fraud initiatives. We awarded a 10-year contract to SRA International to develop the next generation of fraud-detection systems.
We plan even stronger penalties for retailers that misuse the program. We recently updated our policies to clarify that advertising the sale of benefits through social media is a violation and can result in disqualification from the food stamp program.
In addition, we're finalizing rules to deter the practice of buying and discarding food to get money-back deposits; or reselling and exchanging products bought with food stamp benefits to obtain cash or other noneligible items.
The Agriculture Department's efforts to combat SNAP trafficking have been particularly successful. Trafficking — the sale or purchase of benefits for cash — is an illegal activity punishable by criminal prosecution. Over the past 15 years, department and state agencies administering the program have sharply reduced such trafficking — from 4 percent to 1 percent.
But we cannot be content with that success — the people taking unfair advantage constantly change their tactics. We remain vigilant, working to stay ahead of these new forms of program abuse. We have stepped up documentation requirements and background checks on retailers who participate, or seek to participate, in food stamps. Stores that falsify information will be denied or disqualified and may face a $10,000 fine or imprisonment for as long as five years, or both.
The Agriculture Department recently launched a website (www.fns.usda.gov/fightingsnapfraud) to get the word out about our efforts to deter fraudulent food stamp activity and enlist the public's help in fighting it. We will continue to use all tools available, including the latest technology, to combat fraud.
Some perspective on this is crucial. There are 46 million eligible Americans who depend on food stamps, largely because of income, age, disability or job circumstances. Nearly half are children, 8 percent are elderly and 20 percent of food stamp households include a person who is disabled. The great majority abide by program rules.
The fact is fraud is a limited problem in SNAP — though no amount is acceptable. Stores violating the program represent less than one-half of 1 percent of the more than 230,000 food stores authorized to redeem benefits. And the recent fraud stories indicate enforcement efforts are working — as those who would abuse the program are being caught and prosecuted.
This is good news for all U.S. taxpayers and good news for those who use the program — including millions of children and older Americans — who depend on food stamps. Which, in turn, is why the Agriculture Department is committed to assuring the integrity of this vital program.