A proposal to put photo identification on food-stamp cards is making its way through the Ohio General Assembly, having been passed in the state House or Representatives and now under consideration in the state Senate, with Ohio Auditor Dave Yost reportedly lobbying legislators for its passage.
The idea for IDs on food stamp cards is similar to Republican efforts to push for drug testing of assistance recipients: It’s costly and ineffective and mostly just a political cudgel to further shame, blame, and attack poor people whose lives are already a daily struggle to survive, often having to choose between buying toiletries or paying the electricity bill.
The proposal is opposed by many who work to help people struggling in poverty, including Athens County Job & Family Services Director Scott Zielinski, who wrote a letter to state Sen. Frank Hoagland, R-Mingo Junction, on Nov. 3 presenting his argument against the bill for photo ID on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) debit cards.
“Adding photo identification to SNAP cards has not been a cost-effective measure to promote program integrity in other states, and it would be unreasonable to assume that Ohio will have different results,” Zielinski wrote. “The details of the law, and the supporting arguments in favor, concede that no real impact will occur once this is implemented.”
The bill has been introduced ostensibly as a way to prevent fraud. Its supporters have pointed to police officers finding SNAP cards in the homes of alleged drug dealers that reportedly didn’t belong to them, and police suspected the cards of having been used as a form of payment.
Zielinski predicted that the bill will not prevent fraud but could deter people from accessing services and further stigmatize the use of SNAP cards for low-income residents who rely on the assistance to feed their families.
“At the end of the day, after all of the cost and administration to add a photograph to a family’s SNAP card, and all the trouble to ‘educate’ businesses about the new process, and the needless scapegoating of poor people by suspecting them of fraud just for using a safety-net program, if the business suspects someone is using a card not authorized to them… the business calls their county JFS to report their suspicions. That’s it. The transaction still proceeds.”
Cards are issued to families, not individuals, so federal rules assure that those authorized to use the care and with knowledge of the PIN can use it, and retailers cannot stop a person from completing the transaction if their picture is not on the card, Zielinski noted.
“Families have multiple members that may do the shopping in any given week, so the only way to account for the new photo requirement would be to issue multiple SNAP cards per household, which defeats the entire purpose of decreasing fraud,” he said.
If the bill proceeds, Ohio will spend millions of dollars just to appear “tough on need” and sufficiently judgmental of the poor people who rely on the service, Zielinski said.
“If the goal of the bill is to reduce the number of people using the service by stigmatizing users, it should proceed. If the goal of the bill is to reduce fraud/abuse, it should not,” he said.
State Rep. Jay Edwards, the sole Republican in the Ohio House to oppose the bill, said that while eliminating fraud and abuse of the food assistance program is a worthy goal, after investigating this proposal and finding out its costs and apparent lack of effectiveness, he could not support it.
Edwards said that he didn’t realize until this week that he was the lone Republican to vote against House Bill 50 on Nov. 1. Two Democrats joined the rest of the Republicans in voting for it, with the legislation passing the Ohio House 64 to 31.
“The bill said it’s trying to reduce fraud and that’s great – reducing fraud that takes money away from the people who actually need it,” Edwards said.
But after diving into the details, Edwards said that federal regulations already exempt 85 percent of program users from any photo requirement as an undo hardship due to lack of transportation, health issues and other factors.
“So right off the top you’re only working with 15 percent,” he said.
Ohio Auditor Dave Yost has been pushing for the photo ID proposal, Edwards said, citing law enforcement finding the cards during drug busts. But Edwards said the photo ID would not stop anybody from using the card, regardless of whose picture is on it, because cashiers are barred by federal rules from asking for the card anyway, and anybody in the family is allowed to use it.
Furthermore, Edwards said, there’s no way to prove that the drug dealer didn’t steal any SNAP card found in her or his possession or otherwise prove how the card got there.
Another issue, Edwards said, is that fraud can take place on the part of the businesses, with cards being “swiped” at the register without a product actually being sold and the cash then split and pocketed.
“And we’re not doing anything about fraud on that end, and really I don’t think we’re doing anything about fraud on the other end honestly. In theory it sounded good, but when you break it all down, it wasn’t going to do much,” he said. “You can’t check the card. It wasn’t going to do anything at all.”
This is especially important, the House member said, because the program will cost millions of dollars just to get up and running. The Legislative Service Commission has estimated initial start-up costs between $1.5 million and $2 million, then ongoing annual costs between $1 million and $3 million.
Edwards said he spoke to legislators in Massachusettes, where SNAP ID legislation was enacted. That state has half the population and half the SNAP recipients of Ohio, and Edwards said he was told it cost them $8 million.
“It’s going to be a great cost to the state for very little return,” he said. “I don’t think we’re going to see much fraud being fixed by this legislation.”
Edwards said many more people are benefiting from SNAP than people abusing it.
“We’ve got a lot of problems in this state; I’m not sure we should be going after this subset of people who are living below 130 percent of the poverty line,” Edwards said. “And 80 percent of them are living below 100 percent, living in extreme poverty. I’m not sure why we’re going after them and not getting anything in return. It’s going to be a great cost to taxpayers.”