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RI Reps Poised to Fight Food Stamp Fraud

Saturday, February 02, 2013

 

At a time when many Rhode Island residents are still struggling to find work in a state with one of the nation’s worst unemployment rates, five State Representatives are fighting to make sure those individuals and families who ask for government assistance don’t scam the system.

Representative Arthur Corvese recently filed legislation that would combat the trafficking of food assistance benefits provided by the federal government and administered through the state.

Corvese’s bill would outlaw the buying or selling of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, formerly known as food stamps, and would impose a prison sentence of up to five years for anyone caught violating the law.

“There are a lot of good people who really need the help that the food assistance program provides,” Corvese said. “This legislation is to protect the program from fraud and preserve its resources for those who need them and will use them as they are intended: to feed their families.”

Representative John Edwards, one of four co-signers on the bill, said that when offenders are not punished, it undermines the true intention of the program.

“Any benefits that are used fraudulently just hurt the overall program,” he said. “I have a lot of people in my district that benefit from this because they need it and when you have people who are using it fraudulently, who are using it for the wrong reason, it gives the whole system a real black eye.”

SNAP provides benefits to users through an electronic benefits card that can only be used for eligible food items.

A common criticism of the program is that it is often too easy for individuals to convert their benefits to cash by selling them to others, generally at a discount.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has estimated that such fraud costs taxpayers roughly $750 million annually.

Edwards, meanwhile, says such activity is the reason many people look negatively at the program.

“I think if we can get the fraud controlled, people understand that certain people need a hand-up on occasion,” he said. “We all don’t live in perfect homes, we all have problems from time to time and that’s what these programs are set up for so I think if we can get rid of the fraud, number one we’ll save money and number two I think we’ll give the entire system a cleaner look and people will be less inclined to berate and badger people who are accepting these programs.”

Under Corvese’s bill, anyone caught converting or attempting to convert their benefits to cash would be guilty of a felony punishable by five years in prison and $5,000 in fines.

Edwards says Rhode Island can do more to combat fraud and says he hopes the state begins investigating the issue.

“I think if they spoke to some of these businesses that are familiar with the fraud, I think that they would have an ability to police it better,” he said. “I think that’s the biggest thing, they need to put some people out there, they need to spend some money to police this issue and get it cleaned up.”

In addition to possible prison time, anyone caught selling or trying to exchange their benefits would be disqualified from the program for five years following their sentence.

Corvese says the harsh penalties are necessary to thwart a bad problem with a good program.

“Food assistance is for food. Period,” he said. “If someone is selling their benefits, they either don’t need them and the benefits should be going to someone who does, or they are abusing them and quite possibly depriving their family of food they desperately need. No child should have to go hungry because his or her parent sold their SNAP benefits.”

 

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