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The food stamp backlash

Reading James Bovard’s screed on food stamps as a “magnet for abuses and absurdities” in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, I immediately thought, “Wow, he’s targeting food stamps the way conservatives in the 80s and 90s attacked welfare.” By the end of the piece Bovard makes it explicit: “Decades after liberals derided Ronald Reagan’s reference to a Cadillac-driving ‘welfare queen,’” Bovard writes,”Obama administration policies could easily permit Trust Fund Babies driving Rolls Royces to get free food courtesy of Uncle Sam.” Is there a valid argument behind this overheated rhetoric?

Not really. Bovard catalogs a bunch of sensational anecdotes, such as the story of Leroy Flick of Michigan who won the lottery but stayed on food stamps, because his lottery winnings counted as assets, not income. Ok, so the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture — which funds and administers food stamps in conjunction with states — failed to police Leroy Flick. But in a December 2010 Slate article, Annie Lowrey reported that the food stamp program has a 95 percent accuracy in properly subsidizing food purchases to the people below or near the poverty level who need such assistance.

More out-of-context alarm: Bovard cites a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel investigation from this April stating that 2,000 food stamp recipients lost their food stamp cards at least six times last year. The freewheeling Wisconsin government issued them replacement cards each time. Since cards reported lost are immediately voided (and you have to report your card is lost, of course, to receive a new card), it’s unclear how the taxpayer is swindled — aside from the potentially outrageous costs of printing up new food stamp debit cards.  Also, there are 800,000 people in Wisconsin on food stamps — so the big-sounding 2,000 number represents .25 percent of all state recipients.

One strong point Bovard makes is that food stamp use has gone up while the number of USDA food stamp fraud inspectors has gone down. “The USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service now has only 40 inspectors to oversee almost 200,000 merchants that accept food stamps nationwide,” Bovard writes. If the Obama administration is spending more on the food stamp program, it would make sense for more of that money needs to be allocated to policing waste and abuse on the part of recipients, merchants, and even government employees.

Overall, though, a big plus about food stamps is how easy it is to apply — needy people do not have to go through a long bureaucratic process to get assistance. Bovard warns of “loose federal rules” — but isn’t a streamlined bureaucracy precisely what conservative commentators want more of from government?

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