When lawmakers left Washington earlier this month without passing a Farm Bill, some of the disagreement centered on nutrition funding and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.
One of the most significant differences between the House and Senate Farm Bills was with the nutrition programs, including SNAP. The Senate's version cut nutrition spending by $4.5 billion while the House delved deeper into the programs, cutting $16 billion. After the House committee markup, some Senators voiced disagreement over the deep cuts proposed by the House.
Notably, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow said the House version changed eligibility for benefits, whereas the Senate version made changes to decrease fraud.
Answering concern over the SNAP program, which does account for a significant portion of the Farm Bill—and seemingly a similar amount of disagreement among lawmakers—Under Secretary Kevin Concannon announced strategies to improve program integrity. The measures include tougher financial sanctions for the small number of retailers that defraud the program and new requirements and tools for States to ensure benefits go solely to eligible individuals.
"USDA has a zero tolerance policy for SNAP fraud," Concannon said. "These additional measures reaffirm our ongoing commitment to ensuring these dollars are spent as intended–helping millions of people in need get back on solid economic footing."
The retailer sanctions proposal allows USDA to not only permanently disqualify a retailer who traffics, but also assess a monetary penalty in addition to the disqualification. Financial penalties would be proportional to the amount of SNAP business the store is conducting, which will help ensure that the financial punishment more closely fits the crime. Currently, when a retailer is found guilty of fraud or abuse, USDA can either disqualify the retailer from participating in SNAP, or issue a financial penalty, but not both.
The announcement also included new requirements for states to take specific actions that would catch fraud and abuse on the front end and ensure that ineligible people do not participate in the program. The new standards strengthen integrity by giving States an additional tool to identify cases that may require further investigation and review when an applicant or recipient is found in a Federal database.
"These requirements will make us better at identifying potential fraud and abuse before it occurs, as well as help us hold bad actors even more accountable than in the past and discourage them from abusing the public's trust," Concannon said.
Concannon also released third quarter, fiscal year 2012 results of USDA work in fighting fraudulent activity in SNAP retail stores, tallying final actions to sanction or disqualify retailers violating program rules. In that quarter, USDA staff took final actions to:
• Impose sanctions, through fines or temporary disqualifications, on more than 574 stores found violating program rules; and
• Permanently disqualify 1,016 stores for trafficking SNAP benefits (i.e. exchanging SNAP benefits for cash) or falsifying an application.
National Grange President Ed Luttrell said "It is important that the USDA uphold their zero tolerance policy of SNAP fraud in order to ensure that the funds allocated to these programs go to those individuals who truly are in need. This program supplements the monthly food budget of millions of families, so it is imperative those that administer the program make sure to cut fraud and waste so the correct people receive benefits they need."
USDA is also working with local, state and federal partners to root out fraud, waste and abuse in SNAP and ensure its integrity by:
• Sending letters to the CEOs of Craigslist, Ebay, Facebook and Twitter to reiterate the need to help prevent the illegal sale or purchase of SNAP benefits online;
• Proposing a rule to provide States the option to require recipients to make contact with the state when there have been an excessive number of requests for EBT card replacements;
• Increasing documentation required for high-risk stores applying to redeem SNAP benefits;
• Continuing to notify state social service agencies and federal agency partners about violators to better protect our public programs. This includes information on program recipients with suspicious transactions at stores that have been sanctioned for trafficking so that the recipients can be further investigated by States.
For more information about USDA efforts to combat fraud, visit the Stop SNAP fraud website at www.fns.usda.gov/snap/fraud.