When the Food Stamps (now known as SNAP) started in 1964, Congress appropriated $75 million. By the program’s third year, this amount had risen to $200 million. By fiscal year 2012, the program had a price tag of over $78 billion–a staggering thousand-fold increase over the program’s first year. By 2012, more that 46 million people–more than 15 percent of the U.S. population–were receiving benefits.
Most of that money goes to needy families. But an estimated $858 million per year is “trafficked”. Recipients illegally sell their benefits for cash to unscrupulous retailers. By one official estimate, about one in ten of the participating retailers engage in this illegal practice. Not only are these businesses stealing money from the taxpayers, but they are stealing food from hungry people.
If you’re doing this in South Dakota, you’re about to get busted, thanks to the tenacious efforts of the Sioux Falls Argus Leader newspaper. For almost three years, they’ve been fighting to get the USDA to hand over the secret data of how much money is going to each participating retailer. It’s safe to say that armed with this data, they’re going to be responsible for sending a few dishonest store owners to jail, all through the simple expedient of good journalism. If you’re taking in millions in food stamp dollars, it’s now only a matter of time before a reporter camps out outside your door. If you don’t have any customers walking out with bags of groceries, you’ll have some explaining to do. And you can do that explaining to a judge and jury.
For almost three years, the USDA, which runs the food stamp program, tenaciously fought to keep this information secret. They refused to hand it over when the newspaper made a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. They refused again when the newspaper filed an administrative appeal. And they fought hard and won when the newspaper brought them to federal court in South Dakota.
But that all changed on January 28 when another federal court ordered the USDA to hand over the information. The U.S. Court of Appeals, based in St. Louis, struck down the South Dakota judge’s ruling, and held that the public and the newspaper are entitled to this information. The court brought a little sunlight to the USDA bureaucracy, and even quoted Justice Brandeis who said that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”
A few months ago, I did the SNAP Challenge and wrote about it. I know that it’s tough (but not impossible) to feed yourself adequately with the amounts allowed. And it’s a lot harder if people are stealing the money designated to feed the hungry. If you’re stealing from the taxpayers and from hungry people in South Dakota, you’re about to get busted. And it’s about time.
You can read a more complete summary of the court’s opinion at my website, including a link to the court’s opinion.