Photos on food stamp cards: Why it didn’t happen

Two years ago, state lawmakers thumped their chest and proclaimed House Bill 772 the toughest anti-food stamp fraud law in the nation.

Today it’s barely worth the paper it’s printed on.

The bill required food stamp recipients to take a drug test if a case worker suspected them of using drugs. But that tough-talking provision was shelved by Gov. Nathan Deal’s administration almost immediately, when Attorney General Sam Olens advised him the bill likely violated federal law.

Now the second part of HB 772 requiring food stamp EBT cards to carry a photo of the intended beneficiary has suffered a similar fate.

Bobby Cagle, director of the state Division of Family and Children’s Services, said his division has delayed implementing the program for a couple of pressing reasons.

First, the Legislature passed the bill but failed to budget the estimated $7.8 million to pay all the associated costs of starting and administrating the photo program for the state’s roughly 1.6 million beneficiaries of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the formal name for food stamps.

“It was an unfunded mandate from the Legislature,” he told me.

If you follow government like I do, you know this isn’t the first time that lawmakers haven’t put their money where their mouth is.

Second, the federal government has made it clear: You can put the photos on the cards, but you can’t use them to deny food stamp benefits.

“It was not nearly as simple as what people thought,” Cagle said.”You might have elderly people who can’t make it to use their debit card so their family member takes it and goes and gets the groceries.” That’s specifically allowed under federal rules.

While HB 772 technically is the law of the land, it’s also a dead letter when it comes to actual governing, a fact that disturbs Rep. Greg Morris, R-Vidalia, who sponsored the bill. Morris said he had not been formally told that the photo ID provision of the bill had been shelved.

“I would be disappointed to hear that news,” he said.

Can photos fight fraud?

Policy experts like Melissa Johnson of the left-leaning Georgia Budget and Policy Institute are not disappointed in the least. Johnson said adding a photo to SNAP debit cards is bad policy and does nothing to prevent fraud.

“Federal law says you can designate someone to shop for you,” Johnson said. “When that person shows up at the grocery store and their picture doesn’t match the picture on the card, there is no way to do anything with that photo. It’s really a waste of money to put photos on the EBT card.”

If the state followed through with its plans, the photos on most of the cards would be of kids. Children make up about half of all food stamp beneficiaries in Georgia, Johnson said.

Advocates for reform say they are trying to eliminate fraud. The most common type of food stamp fraud is “trafficking” — the exchange of food stamp credits for a lesser amount of cash or ineligible items, like liquor.

The United States Department of Agriculture, which oversees SNAP, says such trafficking constitutes about one cent out of every program dollar. That’s a small amount, but it’s a very big federal program, so the actual dollar figure is estimated to be $858 million, according to one study.

That’s a lot of money lost to fraud, but experts say photos on cards won’t prevent it because trafficking requires cooperation from the person accepting the card. If the grocer or convenience store owner is taking part in the crime, then they obviously don’t care whose mug is on the EBT card.

“In our estimation there are many ideas to prevent fraud that are more effective,” Cagle said.

Cagle said he is sympathetic with state lawmakers concerned about benefits fraud.

“There probably is some frustration that this didn’t take place,” he said about the photo provision of HB 772. “Their frustration also is with the federal government.”

Ideological struggle over benefits

It’s fair to say the feds are pretty frustrated with the states as well. Earlier this year, the USDA drafted a rule requiring states with photo requirements to submit plans to the federal government for approval.

According to the rule, which is not yet final, the plans have to explain in detail how the photo program will protect legitimate use of the cards. The USDA is warning states that such plans have high operational and legal costs with little impact on fraud.

The battle over photos on SNAP cards is mostly a proxy war for a larger ideological struggle over welfare access. Conservative states want to move people off food stamps by any means possible, while the federal government wants to guard individual’s rights to the program from intrusive state interference.

Morris, who authored HB 772, thinks there are “bigger opportunities” to fight the program.

In February Morris introduced House Bill 1087 prohibiting the state from adopting any welfare plan, including food stamps, that exceeds the “federally required minimum levels of participation” without the express consent of the Legislature. The bill died when the Legislature adjourned in March, but Morris said the issue isn’t dead.

Ideally, the Deal administration should be the one to ratchet down food stamp eligibility, he said.

“If not, the Legislature should, and I’d be happy to undertake that effort,” he said.

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