Ohio should look closely at photo IDs for food stamps


ASTATE audit released last summer of Ohio’s $2.5 billion food-stamp program uncovered a wide swath of irregularities such as benefits used by the dead, black-market trading of cards and excessive out-of-state spending of benefits.

In response to that audit and other reports of fraud within the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, two Republican state legislators – Rep. Timothy Schaffer of Lancaster and Sen. Matt Huffman of Lima – have proposed legislation designed to reduce the scope of food-stamp misuse and abuse in the Buckeye State.

They propose adding photos as identification tools to the cards, reasoning that at least some would-be scammers would be less inclined to attempt to gain cash or merchandise using stolen cards that bear someone else’s photograph.

As long as the legislation provides adequate protections to ensure legitimate cardholders are not denied their deserved benefits, and as long as all realize that photo IDs would be no panacea for eliminating other larger causes of fraud, the new legislation warrants a close look by the General Assembly.

Strengthening the program’s operation and heightening its levels of accountability should rank as top goals for any changes to the massive public assistance service. With about 1.6 million Ohioans – including about 90,000 in the Mahoning Valley – dependent on the nutrition-assistance card to make ends meet, any proposed reforms to SNAP cannot be taken lightly.

Any changes to SNAP also must be grounded in reality. Though the audit and other sources pinpoint real problems and abuse, all available evidence indicates fraud is not running wildly rampant in Ohio’s operation of the federal food-stamp program.

Like reports of massive voter fraud, urban myths of widespread food-stamp abuse appear to be overstated. For example, the 2016 audit found only $31,000 in questionable costs in the state’s operation of the public-assistance program.

State Auditor David Yost, a 2018 candidate for state attorney general, says Ohio has no “widespread” abuse of SNAP cards, but he adds that those cases that do surface undermine the integrity of the program.

To be sure, Yost’s audit could not uncover all instances of abuse and misuse, as many illegal SNAP transactions fly far below the radar. Seizures of SNAP cards at drug houses throughout the state indicate their use as barter for marijuana, cocaine, heroin and other illicit drugs.

Fighting illegal acts carried out with SNAP cards also stands out as a premise of Schaffer’s legislation. “It will safeguard the benefits for those who need them and are legally entitled to them, as well as deter crime and drug abuse,” the state representative said.

Bob Bush, director of the Mahoning County Department of Job and Family Services, said he thought the photo ID plan “would probably be somewhat of a deterrent” to fraud in the program that his agency administers in Mahoning County.

Bush is likely correct. Clearly the program would be no cure-all, and therefore legislators should also look at other structural changes to more comprehensively monitor and lessen misuse of the system. But photo IDs do represent one viable means to insert one additional layer of security into the program.

PROTECTIONS NEEDED FOR USERS

Coupled with that security, however, must be protections for food-stamp recipients. Many older, disabled and otherwise immobile recipients depend on others to use their cards for them to purchase groceries and other necessities.

Fortunately, plans for the legislation include photo ID exemptions for residents age 60 and older, those who are disabled or have been victims of domestic violence.

We also hope that should the photo ID become law, Secretary of State Jon Husted would authorize SNAP cards as valid IDs for residents to use at polling stations. It could be an effective tool to maximize voter participation as low-income individuals without cars or driver’s licenses often lack that all-important entry ticket to the ballot box.

Legislators should also consider cost- benefit ratios for the proposal and look into the success and failure of SNAP photo IDs in other states where the policy already has been implemented.

Above all else, any final version of the act must work to weed out fraud and promote accountability and oversight of the taxpayer-funded program. But it must do so without trampling on the legitimate rights of those who rely on the program for their daily sustenance.

CO

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