Over the past few months, a series of high-profile cases have highlighted fraud in the food stamp program, called SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) in Oregon.
Salem police busted Holver Paniagua-Millan, a produce stand owner, for buying food stamps at 50 cents on the dollar and using them to stock his shelves. They say he was bilking the system for $10,000 a month and have since made eight arrests related to the case.
Despite cases like this, it's hard to crack down on fraud when so many Oregonians rely on food stamps as a lifeline.
One in five people in our state use food stamps to have enough to eat. The vast majority of those people use the program honestly, but there were more than 4,000 reports alleging fraud last year.
Now, some lawmakers want a change.
For Christopher Lane of Bend, out of work and back in school after a series of major operations, $167 a month is the difference between eating and starving. The money comes from SNAP.
“I gauge my meals by how much they cost me,” Lane said recently, standing by the refrigerator in his home and displaying what it contains, from yogurt to blueberries.
About 19,000 people in Bend, nearly one in four, get SNAP funds. Statewide, over 800,000 people use the program, costing more than $1 billion a year in federal dollars.
State Rep. Jason Conger, R-Bend, says a recent audit of the system found people who had died still getting food stamps. Portland police tracked people selling their food stamps for cash.
“You’re always going to have fraud,” Conger said. “You’re going to have criminals in every situation. Where there’s money, there will be some level of crime.”
Salem police Lt. Steve Birr said people who defrauded the system “said they generally used the cash to buy cigarettes, liquor and drugs.”
Lane says he sees a more simple kind of fraud in Bend – “lying about the number of people in the household, in order to get more food stamps.
The system is highly automated, the money for food loaded onto an Oregon Trail card, which functions like a debit card.
Last year, more than 1,700 fraud cases were confirmed by the state, but only 10 people were convicted.
John Carter is the lead investigator for the state Department of Human Services, which oversees the program. The state reports the actual fraud rate to be extremely low – one-half of 1 percent.
“I think we do a very good job, with the resources we do have,” Carter said. “If you were to ask me if we could use additional resources – certainly, we could.”
But for some lawmakers, it's a hard number to believe.
“It (food stamp fraud) is criminal, so there’s already laws against it, which is great,” Conger said. “What are you doing to prevent it, so it shows a certain level of incompetence or inability in our state agencies.”
Conger says five bills were proposed to address the fraud issues, including putting people's picture's on the cards and limiting the number of times they can be reported lost or stolen. Only one bill made it to the floor, defeated on party lines.
“That is frustrating – I mean, that is really frustrating,” Conger said.
Even more frustrated are the people who depend on that money for their next meal.
Lane said he does worry “considerably” about how fraud could make food stamps harder to get for those with legitimate need, such as him.
“Without it, I would be in really tough shape,” he said.
Federal funding for food stamps is buried in the Farm Bill, which Congress failed to renew last week, in part because of the debate over food stamps. It is such a divisive issue, there is now a move to pull the food stamp funding into its own bill.
Oregon’s Web page on reporting fraud is at http://www.oregon.gov/DHS/aboutdhs/Pages/fraud/index.aspx
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s page on the issue is at http://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/fraud.htm