SNAP Fraud ads not reflective of DC values

SNAP Fraud ads not reflective of DC Values

Written by Ariel Kagan, with Christina Sivulka ’18 and Jordan Carter MPH ’18

“SNAP FRAUD!” exclaims public service advertisements posted around the D.C. Metro system by the D.C. government. While almost no Metro rider could tell you what “SNAP FRAUD!” actually looks like, they’re nevertheless being actively recruited, using taxpayer funds, to become informants against their low-income neighbors and fellow shoppers — aka suspected criminals.

An advertisement in the Shaw/Howard University Metro Station

Posters, like the one shown below, are part of a new campaign that encourages citizens to self-identify and report alleged SNAP fraud. For the unfamiliar, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, helps low-income families (those with annual incomes below $15,000) fight hunger, and has been proven to be highly effective at reducing food insecurity, even with a low average monthly benefit of just $125.40.

Looking at these ads, a Metro commuter might get the impression that SNAP fraud is running rampant — but it isn’t.

Though SNAP fraud does exists, it’s very rare, especially in the D.C. area. According to the most recent SNAP State and Activity Report, there were only 122 SNAP recipient fraud prosecutions in D.C. (out of near 150,000 D.C. SNAP recipients) in 2016, resulting in a program loss of $302,777.

All of this begs the question, why is the D.C. Department of Human Services (DHS), whose missions is to “empower every District resident to reach their full potential by providing meaningful connections to work opportunities, economic assistance and supportive services,” using its budget to raise the alarm over SNAP fraud, when statistics show that fraud is a minimal issue in the D.C. area? How much is DHS’s campaign costing taxpayers, and is it really what the department and the D.C. government should be prioritizing?

While DHS is federally mandated to investigate allegations of suspected SNAP fraud, there’s nothing mandating a public advertising campaign to enlist average citizens to call in anonymous tips based on their suspicions. And why would there be? It’s a terrible idea! What qualifies a random person to correctly identify activity that violates federal SNAP guidelines?  

On DHS’s website, SNAP fraud is described as “stealing benefits, reselling items purchased with SNAP benefits, buying, selling or exchanging SNAP benefits for cash, withholding and providing false or misleading information on benefits application, and ‘Water Dumping’ (purchasing beverages in containers with returnable deposits for the sole purpose of discarding the contents and returning the containers to obtain cash refund deposits).”

How exactly is the average citizen going to be positioned to witness this activity take place, let alone correctly judge whether or not it amounts to fraud? More likely, the result we’ll see is real cases of fraud getting buried under a mountain of tips from nosy shoppers suspecting that the person in line ahead of them at the grocery store shouldn’t be buying soda or an avocado with their SNAP benefits.

Now you can start to see how these unnecessary ads could have incredible implications for both SNAP users and the SNAP program itself. For one, it reinforces the negative stigma surrounding SNAP users and perpetuates misconceptions about the program itself. Additionally, 2018 is a Farm Bill year, and SNAP is already getting caught up again in political wrangling over work requirements and eligibility issues. President Trump just suggested drug testing SNAP recipients! This context makes it all the more concerning that DHS has chosen to engage in pushing this dangerous narrative when this important nutrition program is already at risk.

Though SNAP fraud can and should be investigated by DHS, the department also has many other responsibilities to assist and benefit D.C. residents. DHS has to decide how to prioritize the use of their limited resources. Given their mission to “empower every District resident to reach their full potential,” perhaps rather than wasting resources on recruiting a vigilante fraud-sleuthing squad, funds should be used to promote SNAP to ensure that eligible D.C. residents can get access to fresh, healthy food.

Like did you know that D.C.’s Produce Plus Program provides income-eligible D.C. residents with a flat benefit of $1

SNAP fraud advertisements line the walkway at the Capitol South Metro Station

0 twice a week ($20 weekly) to spend on fruits and vegetables at 50 farmers’ markets across the city? Did you know that some farmers markets even match SNAP funds up to $10 per person, per day, which expands the purchasing power of food insecure residents? D.C. services like these increase the buying potential of SNAP participants, support the local economy, give people access to fresh and healthy food — and maybe more people would know about them if DHS cared a little bit more about their mission, and a little bit less about demonizing local SNAP recipients.

SNAP fraud is a relatively insignificant issue in D.C., particularly when compared to the many more pressing issues out there for DHS to address to make our community better. DHS should consider how their advertising and propaganda both reflects on themselves as a department and how it affects the perception of those who rely on SNAP to survive. DHS needs rethink their actions and refocus on how they can actually fulfill their mission of empowering each District resident to reach their full potential, as they have pledged to do.


Note: On April 12, the DC DHS released a statement about these advertisements. They will be removed.