Food stamp recipients who trade or sell their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits for money or use them to purchase beverages just so they can dump the liquid and return the empties for cash now risk losing their benefits.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has taken a hard stand on “water dumping” and the selling or trading of benefits and announced Wednesday that it has updated the definition of trafficking — a disqualifying action — to include both as stealing of benefits.
“I recall several years ago Bangor police responding to a downtown store where a person bought a whole case [of bottled water] and just stepped outside the door and dumped all the water out for the purpose of getting that 5 cents,” USDA Under Secretary Kevin Concannon said Wednesday during a phone interview. “To me, that was such a flagrant violation of the program.”
The young couple was caught on video dumping the water in front of Shaw’s grocery store and told police that they didn’t think there was anything wrong with what they were doing. The bottled water they bought with their SNAP card cost around $6 and the duo got $2.40 back in cash from the redeemed bottles.
The woman who took the video on her cellphone called the Bangor Daily News and said she was outraged that people on welfare were dumping public money down the drain.
“That just drives them crazy,” Concannon said, referring to residents who pay taxes to support the federal welfare program responding to obvious abuse. “Americans across the country want to help but they don’t want [the benefits] abused.”
If a person is caught selling or trading their SNAP benefits, they are put on a progressive discipline plan, and if their welfare benefits are taken away, they are gone for life, the USDA under secretary said.
“Initially, they are taken out of the program for a couple of months,” Concannon said. “If they violate the rules again, they are again taken out of the program for a couple of months. The third time — they are taken off forever.”
The names of those removed from the program will be put on a nationwide banned list, he said.
“It’s a very serious violation,” Concannon said.
The water dumping rule only affects about a dozen states in the country that have bottle return laws, including Maine, where empty bottles and cans are worth 5 cents and glass milk quart bottles fetch $2, he said. Michigan, where returnables are worth 10 cents each, and other states also saw abuses, said Concannon, who spent 22 years in Maine state government.
USDA’s effort to ensure the integrity of SNAP is not only focused on recipients. The agency also is seeking comment on a new a proposal to immediately suspend retailers who are suspected of trafficking in SNAP benefits. A store that provides cash or nonqualifying products in exchange for benefits are examples of trafficking, Concannon said.
“Currently, when a retailer is suspected of trafficking, USDA must first conduct an investigation before suspending the retailer,” a USDA press release states. “During this time, retailers may be able to conduct substantial fraudulent SNAP activity and ultimately make large profits from trafficked benefits. This proposal would authorize USDA to immediately suspend the payment of redeemed SNAP benefits in flagrant trafficking situations, pending action to disqualify the retailer.”
The USDA’s compliance analysts and investigators reviewed more than 15,000 stores in 2012 and investigated more than 5,000 for violations. They ended up permanently disqualifying 1,387 stores for trafficking in SNAP benefits and imposed sanctions on 692 others.
SNAP is designed to feed the country’s needy and those who abuse the rules for their own benefit are the focus of new rules and the proposed rule changes, Concannon said.
“The intent of the program is for it to be used for food for the households that qualify for the program,” he said. “SNAP serves about 47 million Americans each month and almost half of them children.”
The USDA announcement is part of the Obama administration’s Campaign to Cut Waste, which is designed to fight fraud, abuse and misuse in federal programs.