WASHINGTON, D.C. - Oregon Congressman Bob Smith, Chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture, and Congressman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), Chairman of the Agriculture Subcommittee on Department Operations, Nutrition, and Foreign Agriculture, today expressed dismay and outrage at a General Accounting Office (GAO) report suggesting that millions of dollars in food stamp payments are wasted in overpayments to households that fail to report the imprisonment of a household member.
Despite the prohibition in the Food Stamp Act against prisoners participating in the food stamp program, the review by GAO, widely known as the investigative arm of Congress, identified 12,138 inmates in three states tested (Florida, New York, and Texas) and Los Angeles County, California who were included in households receiving food stamps. The overpayment to households in just those areas reviewed amounted to $3.5 million. While households that receive food stamps are required to report changes in household membership, including incarceration, to the program's administering state or local agency, few states have implemented programs to verify the composition of families receiving food stamps.
Smith and Goodlatte announced that they are introducing legislation to require states to establish a system to verify that prisoners are not considered to be part of any household participating in the food stamp program, and provide a disincentive for states which fail to do so. The bill will be considered by the full Agriculture committee on Wednesday.
"It's outrageous that scarce public resources, which are allocated to those in need out of human compassion and kindness, are going unfairly to some households whose only advantage is that one of its members broke the law and went to jail. Taxpayers have a right to expect that their taxes are wisely spent, and improperly enriching the households of the incarcerated is not what taxpayers have in mind. That's not what this program is about, and we mean to end this shameful practice," Chairman Smith said.
"It truly is unfair, not just for the taxpayers, but for the millions of law-abiding Americans who receive food stamps properly that such an abuse could occur, that those families who truly need government assistance for their nutrition could receive lesser amounts than those who break the law. Simple fairness dictates that we do something, both to end the waste and abuse of the food stamp program, but also to keep faith with the neediest Americans, for whom these benefits are intended. It pains us to think that some families are struggling to provide for their nutritional needs while across the street another household is living better because one of their members went to the slammer," said Rep. Goodlatte.
Under the bill to be introduced by Chairmen Smith and Goodlatte, states would be required to institute a system to verify that individuals detained in Federal, state, or county penal facilities are not participating in the food stamp program. If a state fails to establish the verification system required in the bill, the state may have a portion of its federal administrative funds withheld. Additionally, the Secretary may seek an injunction ordering a state to establish a verification system.
Smith, the full Committee's Chairman, represents Oregon's Second Congressional District, which includes most of eastern, southern, and central Oregon, in the U.S. House of Representatives. Goodlatte, who serves as Chairman of the subcommittee with jurisdiction over food stamps, represents Virginia's Sixth Congressional District, which includes Roanoke, Lynchburg, and the Shenandoah Valley.