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4 Absurd, Damaging Right-Wing Lies About Food Stamps

Hipsters abusing food stamps, recipients buying nothing but McDonald's ... the many myths about the federal food stamp program poison the public's perception of it.

On November 4, Congresswoman Jackie Speier, D-Calif., and eight of her Democratic colleagues ended their week-long " food stamp challenge." During the challenge, the congresspeople maintained a $4.50-per-day food budget to better understand the situation of those in the food stamp program, which delivers an average weekly benefit of $32.59. (The program was officially renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, in 2004.)

"There are a lot of myths associated with food stamps," including "the argument that it is rife with fraud" and the idea that beneficiaries are shiftless, said Speier. "Many of those who are on food stamps are the working poor. I really feel strongly that unless we walk in the shoes of someone on food stamps, we have no idea. I had no idea, I really didn't."

The food stamp challenge highlights the realities of a program in peril and serves as a necessary corrective to the narrative promoted by today's ultra-conservative Republican Party. The Wall Street Journal recently published a piece calling SNAP "a magnet for abuses and absurdities" and a "conspiracy against self-reliance." In March, the powerful House Agriculture Committee recommended cutting SNAP in lieu of farm subsidies, which largely benefit the wealthy. And in October Senator Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama,  fumed, "No program in our government has surged out of control more dramatically than food stamps."

The congressional supercommittee, which has been attempting to reduce the deficit, eyed the program hungrily as well, even though SNAP costs a mere $ 68 billion of a federal budget that is larger than $3.5 trillion -- a drop in the bucket compared to the reckless, wasteful and fraud-prone Pentagon spending or the nation's unbelievably high healthcare costs.

The attacks on SNAP are wrong on their merits. They are also cruel, especially if the accompanying proposals are enacted. There are currently 45.8 million people on SNAP (an astounding one out of every seven Americans). Less than half of beneficiaries are of working age, but a majority of adults on the program are underemployed or work jobs with wages so low they can't always afford housing, utilities and transportation in addition to sufficient food for their families. They aren't lazy or weak; they're trapped by low-wage employment in an economy that's mostly creating jobs that pay less than $13.52 an hour.

Perhaps SNAP's congressional opponents wouldn't be such a danger if voters better understood the program. But as Speier noted, there are many myths about the program that poison the public perception of it. Here are four rebuttals to common misconceptions about the federal food stamp program.

1. The program is rife with fraud and abuse

In the Wall Street Journal editorial, SNAP is denounced as an "unmonitored welfare program" that hemorrhages billions in unjustifiable and fraudulent claims. This is demonstrably false.

In 2010, the Government Accountability Office found that "the national rate of food stamp trafficking [trading benefits for money or non-food goods] declined from about 3.8 cents per dollar of benefits" in 1993 to 1 cent per dollar today -- a historic decline. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, which runs the program, SNAP "had the lowest error rate in history at 3.81%. Over 98% of those receiving benefits are eligible for SNAP."

Steps can be taken to bring those numbers down even further, but to argue, as the GOP has, that sweeping cuts are needed to address minimal levels of fraud and abuse is akin to recommending a howitzer barrage as an appropriate response to a household fruit fly infestation.

A more appropriate response would be to double down on the USDA's successful anti-fraud campaign. The Electronic Benefits Transfer, or EBT, cards that went into circulation in 2004 (replacing traditional food stamps) make it significantly easier to detect abusive users and the retailers that enable them. The USDA employs over 100 staffers to investigate these crimes. Hiring a few more to bolster the effort makes more sense than letting millions of Americans go hungry.

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