USDA hopes changes will cut into food stamp fraud

WASHINGTON – The Agriculture Department on Thursday came out with new steps to fight fraud in food stamps, a program that has taken center stage as Congress struggles to adopt a long-term farm policy bill.

The actions announced by Agriculture Undersecretary Kevin Concannon include giving the department new authority to penalize retailers who traffic in food stamps and requiring states to make use of federal databases, including prison and death records, to ensure that food benefits go to those who are eligible.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) has seen participation climb from 28 million at the start of the recession in 2008 to 46 million today. The department says food stamp fraud already is at record lows due to increased oversight, but is sensitive to abuse reports as Congress tries to pass a five-year farm bill this year that includes nearly $80 billion a year for food stamps.

The rate of trafficking or fraud is currently about 1 percent, one of the lowest among federal programs, Concannon said.

The new sanctions would allow the department to both disqualify a retailer who traffics and assess a fine proportionate to the amount of food stamp business the store does. Currently, the department cannot do both, Concannon said.

States also would be required to check a national database to verify that applicants haven’t been disqualified in other states and confirm from Social Security Administration records that the applicant is not in jail or deceased.

The farm bill, which sets policy on crop subsidies and conservation, has made it through Congress in the past because it has been linked to food stamps and other nutrition programs, uniting rural and urban lawmakers. With the current farm law set to expire at the end of September, the Senate passed a new bill in June and the House Agriculture Committee approved a similar version in July.

But House GOP leaders have declined to bring the bill to the floor for a vote, fearing that disputes over food stamps would lead to its defeat.

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