Archives: 04/2013

Food Stamp Fraud and Twinkies

The federal food stamp program—now called SNAP—is attracting a lot of media coverage. One reason for this is that the program’s costs have exploded—spending more than quadrupled during the Bush-Obama years to $82 billion in 2013 (see here and here p. 16). The Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations all took steps to loosen the purse strings on food stamp eligibility, and those changes have led to the ballooning costs of recent years during the stagnant economy.

Aside from the rising costs, two other aspects of SNAP have garnered interest. One is food stamp fraud. The other is the program’s “Twinkie problem”: taxpayers are paying for billions of dollars of junk food, which seems like a huge waste of money to most people.

These two issues have come together in a high-profile effort by a group of media organizations that is demanding greater transparency in SNAP operations. The organizations—led by the Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ)—have sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack (whose agency oversees SNAP) asking for full disclosure about where food stamps are being spent and what they are being spent on. The Daily Caller reports on the issue here.

Let’s look at the fraud issue. The government claims that the food stamp trafficking rate is just 1 percent and the general overpayment rate is just 4 percent. I suspect that the real rates are much higher, for three reasons: First, the overall costs of SNAP and the number of beneficiaries have skyrocketed. Second, SNAP is ideally suited for abuse: the USDA has few investigators to police the roughly 200,000 SNAP retailers, any of whom could be scamming the system. Third, overpayment rates on other federal subsidy programs are often around 10 percent. Medicare and Medicaid overpayments are in that range, for example, and overpayments have long been around 20 percent in the EITC program.

The AHCJ-led effort is asking the USDA to release data on food stamp purchases by retail outlet. This would be a very useful resource for investigators across the nation to help the government reduce waste and fraud. Are food stamps being cashed in at liquor stores? Which corner stores have unusually high food stamp usage? Let’s get detailed SNAP data on the Internet and allow journalists and the public to help answer these questions. After all, scandal after scandal illustrate that the federal government is lousy at policing programs itself.

Food Aid as Industrial Policy

It’s understandable that Americans would see malnourished people in other countries and want to help. Despite our recent economic woes, we are still relatively wealthy, and our instinct is to make the world a better place if we can.

The role of the government in any such issue is debatable. But not surprisingly, once the government gets involved, the original purpose gets distorted. In practice, after becoming a government program, the idea of giving food to poor people has been turned into an industrial policy tool. Instead of simply giving money to people to buy food from the cheapest source, the U.S. government buys food from U.S. producers and requires that it be sent overseas on U.S. ships.

Thus, government turns aid for the foreign poor into a domestic jobs program. As a result, the percentage of food aid money actually spent on food for the hungry is significantly reduced, as some of that money is now diverted to subsidizing domestic agricultural and other interests. (That, of course, is the problem with all industrial policy: it reduces overall welfare in order to help a favored few.)

Hopefully, that may change soon.  From the Washington Post:

The Obama administration has proposed the first major change in three decades to the way the United States supplies food aid to impoverished nations, significantly scaling back the program that buys commodities from U.S. farmers and ships them to the needy overseas.

Under a proposal in the White House budget released Wednesday, nearly half of $1.4 billion in requested funds for the aid could instead be spent to purchase local bulk food in countries in need or to distribute individual vouchers for local purchases.

Reducing the government’s requirement to purchase U.S. food, most of which by law must be shipped on U.S.-flag vessels, will save enough money to feed an additional 4 million children, according to Rajiv Shah, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

Although the United States is the biggest provider of food assistance in the world, it is the only donor nation that continues to require national purchases and shipment. Government and academic studies in recent years have described the U.S. system as both wasteful and inefficient.

School Choice Works

The evidence is in: school choice works. Yesterday, the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice released their third edition of their report “A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice.” The report provides a literature review of dozens of high-quality studies of school choice programs around the country, including studies from scholars at Harvard University, Stanford University, Cornell University, the University of Arkansas, the Brookings Institution, and the Federal Reserve Bank. The studies examine the impact of school choice programs on the academic performance of participants and public school students, the fiscal impact on taxpayers, racial segregation, and civic values.

The report’s key findings included the following:

  • Twelve empirical studies have examined academic outcomes for school choice participants using random assignment, the “gold standard” of social science. Of these, 11 find that choice improves student outcomes—six that all students benefit and five that some benefit and some are not affected. One study finds no visible impact. No empirical study has found a negative impact.
  • Twenty-three empirical studies (including all methods) have examined school choice’s impact on academic outcomes in public schools. Of these, 22 find that choice improves public schools and one finds no visible impact. No empirical study has found that choice harms public schools.
  • Six empirical studies have examined school choice’s fiscal impact on taxpayers. All six find that school choice saves money for taxpayers. No empirical study has found a negative fiscal impact.
  • Eight empirical studies have examined school choice and racial segregation in schools. Of these, seven find that school choice moves students from more segregated schools into less segregated schools. One finds no net effect on segregation from school choice. No empirical study has found that choice increases racial segregation.
  • Seven empirical studies have examined school choice’s impact on civic values and practices such as respect for the rights of others and civic knowledge. Of these, five find that school choice improves civic values and practices. Two find no visible impact from school choice. No empirical study has found that school choice has a negative impact on civic values and practices.

On the same day, a new study from researchers at Harvard University and the Brookings Institution found that a school choice program boosted college enrollment among African-American participants by 24 percent.

While many of the findings show only modest improvement, they consistently show that school choice programs produce the same or superior results across a gamut of measures. Moreover, not all the benefits of choice are easily measurable. Some families are looking for a school that better meets a student’s special needs, instills the parents’ values, inspires a lifelong love of learning, or where a student is safe from bullying. These outcomes are sometimes difficult if not impossible to measure in the aggregate, but parents are in the best position to tell the difference for their own children.

The Fact-free Gun Control Debate

From Thomas Sowell’s latest column:

Amid all the heated, emotional advocacy of gun control, have you ever heard even one person present convincing hard evidence that tighter gun-control laws have in fact reduced murders? …

What almost no one talks about is that guns are used to defend lives as well as to take lives. In fact, many of the horrific killings that we see in the media were brought to an end when someone else with a gun showed up and put a stop to the slaughter. The Cato Institute estimates that there are upwards of 100,000 defensive uses of guns per year. Preventing law-abiding citizens from defending themselves can cost far more lives than are lost in the shooting episodes that the media publicize. The lives saved by guns are no less precious just because the media pay no attention to them.

Read the whole thing. Go here for the Cato research that Mr. Sowell is talking about.

National Standardizers, Time to Speak Out against Federal Coercion

Maybe because it’s now hitting schools, or because it’s gotten high on the radars of Michelle Malkin and Glenn Beck, or because national science standards have raised a ruckus, but for whatever reason the Common Core is finally starting to get the national—and critical—attention it has desperately needed. Indeed, just yesterday Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) sent a letter to the Senate appropriations subcomittee that deals with education urging members to employ legislative language prohibiting federal funding or coercion regarding curricula. That follows the Republican National Committee last week passing a resolution opposing the Common Core.

It’s terrific to see serious attention paid to the Common Core, even if it is probably too late for many states to un-adopt the program in the near term. At the very least, this gives new hope that the public will be alert if there are efforts to connect annual federal funding to national standards and tests through a reauthorized No Child Left Behind Act. And there are certainly some states where nationalization could be halted in the next few months. Perhaps most important, the Grassley letter gives Common Core supporters who’ve said they oppose federal coercion a huge opening to act on their words—to loudly support an effort to keep Washington out. They can either do that, or substantiate the powerful suspicion that they are happy to use federal force to impose standards, they just don’t want to admit it.

School Choice Survives Repeal Attempt in New Hampshire

Just moments ago, New Hampshire’s state senate rejected an attempt to repeal the state’s nascent scholarship tax credit law by a 13-11 vote*. The program grants tax credits to businesses worth 85 percent of their contributions to nonprofit scholarship organizations that fund low- and middle-income students attending private or home schools. The program took effect on January 1 of this year but scholarships will not be distributed until the new school year in the fall.

The support of Senate Education Committee Chairwoman, Senator Nancy Stiles, was decisive in saving the program. Last year, Sen. Stiles had voted against the school choice proposal, but she decided to oppose the repeal because she believed “it would be irresponsible to overturn it without seeing whether the legislation made a positive difference.” She also noted that without having had the opportunity to evaluate the program’s effectiveness, the opponents of the school choice program want to “rescind a program, not based on its effectiveness, but on philosophical differences. I cannot support or be a part of this effort.”

The legislative battle does not end here, however, since the NH House also repealed the scholarship tax credit program in the House version of the budget. Budget negotiations between New Hampshire’s Democrat-controlled House and Republican-controlled Senate are expected to continue until about mid-June.

The law is also being challenged in court by the Americans for Separation of Church and State and the ACLU, who claim that the school choice program violates the state’s historically anti-Catholic Blaine Amendment, which prohibits public funding of private schools. Their argument is based on a false premise, which is why the courts have ultimately rejected it wherever it has been tried. A citizen’s money is her own until it reaches tax collector’s hand. A private donation therefore does not constitute “public funding” even if it qualifies for a tax credit or deduction. While impossible to predict the future, it is likely that the Granite State courts will rule in line with other states’ interpretations of the Blaine Amendment and the U.S. Supreme Court’s understanding of tax credits.

*UPDATE: I originally reported that the vote was 14-10 to table the repeal bill. In fact, one state senator had mistakenly voted for the motion when he intended to vote against it and that was later corrected. The 13-11 vote was along party lines.

Stabenow, Too, Admits ObamaCare Won’t Work

The president’s budget proposes to rescind ObamaCare’s cuts to Medicaid disproportionate share hospital payments in 2014. As I explain in a National Review Online op-edthis proposal demonstrates that:
  1. ObamaCare is not likely to reduce uncompensated care in 2014.
  2. ObamaCare won’t reduce the deficit.
  3. Hospitals can stop crying poverty.
  4. States don’t need to expand Medicaid to protect hospitals.

Related to that, Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Roy Blunt (R-MO) have now introduced legislation (technically, an amendment) that would rescind those cuts, thereby increasing Medicaid spending. This reinforces the four points above, especially the part about states not needing to expand Medicaid.

Interestingly, both Stabenow and Blunt are flip-flopping and/or betraying their principles. Stabenow the Democrat is repealing part of ObamaCare, while Blunt the Republican is increasing government spending.