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Editorial: Narrow the benefits

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — better known as SNAP or food stamps — has been an important source of household aid in Wasco County and Oregon over the past five years of recession and economic stagnation.

It is particularly important for the working poor, people laboring in the many minimum wage service jobs that have replaced the living-wage resource and factory jobs that once helped towns like The Dalles thrive.

But the SNAP program is also rife with fraud.

We’re not talking about the criminal kind that makes headlines a couple of times each year where a recipient is discovered living in a mansion driving luxury cars.

We’re talking about the misuse of benefits that happens on a daily basis.

A case in point: Last week a recipient purchased more than a dozen cases of soda pop at a local grocery store, then emptied the cans in the store parking lot to get the deposits back in cash.

Purchasing high-end seafood for resale and expensive designer coffee drinks with benefits are other local examples of misuse of benefits that are designed only to provide for the food security of our most vulnerable citizens.

These behaviors by a relative few not only make it harder for politicians to fight to maintain benefits for those who really need them, they also promote a public bias against food stamp recipients.

But it is flaws within the program that allow such misuse to flourish.

The first question to ask when reading about the soda pop debacle is why is soda an allowed SNAP purchase in the first place?

Soda is arguably the single largest contributor to America’s obesity epidemic and its related illnesses. Why are the American people subsidizing its purchase?

The range of foods available for purchase with food stamps is unnecessarily broad, inviting abuse and malnutrition.

There are existing federal programs available that could provide a model for SNAP reforms.

Take the Women and Infant Children (WIC) program, for example. WIC allows recipients to purchase food from a narrow range of nutritious options.

Of course, WIC’s supplemental food program is just 6 percent the size of SNAP, based on dollars spent, but today’s computerized inventory programs and check stands should be able to produce shelf labels showing a food-stamp eligible designation and sort out ineligible foods at the check stand.

Advocates often cry discrimination when such options are considered, but it can hardly be discrimination when people who pay for their groceries with their own earnings are forced to make the same decisions every day.

Do they choose filet mignon and a tall, premium half-caf latté with whipped cream and a shot of hazelnut when their own monthly food budget is less than $200? They’d probably opt for being able to afford eggs, milk and peanut butter instead.

Many states have proposed or enacted laws requiring drug testing as a criteria for public benefit eligibility. We’re not adverse to that prospect, but it won’t solve the problems built into the SNAP program as a result of its lax rules.

A more narrowly defined benefit would help assure available funds get to those who need them.

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