Politics

Fox News Claims Food Stamp Fraud Has Never Been Higher — Here's Why They're Wrong

Fox News claimed this week that "food stamp fraud" was out of control.

In a segment titled " Food Stamp Fraud at All-Time High: Is It Time to End the Program?," host Abby Huntsman states that "$70 million" of "taxpayer money" was lost in fraud and abuse.

Fox News

The segment features a debate between a Democrat and a Republican over the future over the future of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program's (SNAP) program.

However, that debate excludes some critical statistics, and fails to give adequate sourcing for others. Its central claim is that " According to the USDA, $70 million of taxpayer money was wasted in 2016 due to food stamp fraud."

However, it provides no specific citation for the number. The USDA doesn't have a document that mentions any specific dollar amount, meaning Fox News either got the $70 million number from a private source, or extrapolated it from other data.

The USDA's most recent press release related to fraud, from 2013, mentions that trafficking of benefits (illegally selling them for cash) is at an all-time low, and represents about one cent of every dollar administered.

But given that the Fox News piece simply mentions "fraud" without going into detail about what it considers fraud, it's impossible to tell if they're claiming $70 million was trafficked, or if that amount was overpaid, paid out to unqualified recipients, or something else.

Fox News

Ironically, if Fox News were using only the amount of SNAP funds illegally trafficked, they might have produced a more salacious headline. SNAP is a $75 billion program, meaning that even at a low rate of 1 percent, $750 million is illegally sold for cash. Yet they used a number much lower than that, one that's less than one-tenth of a percent of the overall cost of the program.

In fact, an extensive study by the non-partisan think tank the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that SNAP has an extremely low error rate, aggressive fraud prevention, and high quality control. Most errors are made due to honest mistakes or complex rules, and the program has also improved its accuracy in recent years, with overpayments reduced from 8 percent in the early 1990s to just over 2 percent now.

Food Stamp Fraud

Rather than providing concrete evidence of a significant statistical uptick in food stamp fraud, the Fox News story highlights incendiary anecdotes.

The opening line of the segment states: "Food stamp fraud is at an all-time high, with cases this year including a state lawmaker and even a millionaire."

This lawmaker is an Arizona state legislator, who pleaded guilty to one count of welfare fraud for receiving $1,700 in benefits after she got a new job. The "millionaire" is likely Ali Pascal Mahvi, a 65-year-old Iranian scion indicted for defrauding the SNAP program of $300 per month while sitting on bank accounts with over $4 million.

These are high-profile embarrassments for SNAP, but not at all indicative of the plight of the vast majority of recipients.