Americans spend $80 billion each year financing food stamps for the poor, but the country has no idea where or how the money is spent.
Food stamps can be spent on goods ranging from candy to steak and are accepted at retailers from gas stations that primarily sell potato chips to fried-chicken restaurants. And as the amount spent on food stamps has more than doubled in recent years, the amount of food stamps laundered into cash has increased dramatically, government statistics show.
But the government won’t say which stores are doing the most business in food stamps, and even it doesn’t know what kinds of food those taxpayer dollars buy.
Coinciding with lobbying by convenience stores, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the program in conjunction with states, contends that disclosing how much each store authorized to accept benefits, known as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), receives in taxpayer funds would amount to revealing trade secrets.
As a result, fraud is hard to track and the efficacy of the massive program is impossible to evaluate.
As the House debates the once-every-five-years farm bill, the majority of which goes to food stamps, there is a renewed and fervent call from a broad spectrum of camps that the information — some of the most high-dollar, frequently requested and closely held secrets of the government — be set free.
“We can’t release it based on federal rules. If it were up to us, I wouldn’t have a problem releasing the information. It’s taxpayer money,” said Tom Steinhauser with the division of benefit programs for the Virginia Department of Social Services.
The District said it would be illegal to tell the newspaper how many food stamp dollars were flowing to each local vendor, but first offered to sell The Washington Times the information for $125,000.
“Why don’t you just pay the charges? Your paper has a lot of money,” said David Umansky, spokesman for the District’s chief financial officer.
Told that the newspaper would not pay, the CFO’s office then said that only JP Morgan, to which it contracted out operations, had access to the store totals and that the office had never looked at them. After six months of the local government attempting to extract the information from JP Morgan, the District finally said that releasing the information would be illegal.
States instructed not to tell
Maryland denied The Times’ request for data under the Freedom of Information Act, saying the information belonged to the federal government, which instructed states not to release it.
Legislation seemingly designed to protect the industry goes so far as to say that anyone who releases the amount of food stamp dollars paid to a store can be jailed.
Profiting from the poor’s taxpayer-funded purchases has become big business for a mix of major companies and corner bodegas, which have spent millions of dollars lobbying Congress and the USDA to keep the money flowing freely.
The National Association of Convenience Store Operators alone spends millions of dollars on lobbying yearly, including $1 million in the first quarter of this year.