Food-stamp fraud and prevalence signs of a struggling state

Food-stamp fraud and prevalence signs of a struggling state

More than 1 in 5 Illinois households rely on food stamps to make ends meet.

Praise for the Clintons is sparse these days.

But the 20th anniversary of the former president’s signature achievement deserves discussion.

President Bill Clinton’s welfare overhaul, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, caused welfare rolls to drop by half. But the poverty rate fell as well – especially for single mothers, minorities and children. He signed it into law Aug. 22, 1996.

The law created a program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. It is through TANF that enrollees in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (commonly known as food stamps) receive meal money.

But state data indicate too many Illinoisans have been pushed into food-stamp dependency. And stories of abuse cast a grim shadow over one of the nation’s most basic safety nets.

Trading food stamps for cash is commonplace among struggling businesses on Chicago’s south and west sides, according to a new investigation from the Chicago Tribune.

David Williams, the Cook County assistant state’s attorney, described food-stamp trafficking as “fairly rampant” in Windy City corner stores.

“We see a lot of it,” Williams told the Tribune. “It’s a major problem. It’s our tax money that’s basically funding these criminal operations.”

Store owners are frequently approached for trades of $50, $60 or $70 for $100 worth of benefits.

Wael Ghosheh made that look like spare change.

In March of last year, the man from southwest suburban Burbank was charged with using more than $900,000 from 3,000 Link cards to buy and resell energy drinks and candy. Link cards are what Illinoisans use to access their food-stamp benefits.

Fraud on this scale is a slap in the face to struggling families. And more should be done to prevent it. Massachusetts and Missouri, for example, require photo identification on the cards used for food-stamp benefits. Maine is in the process of rolling out a similar program.

And while the federal government does enforce rules on how one may use welfare funds, 25 states have taken additional steps to explicitly ban the use of welfare funds for alcohol, tobacco, gambling, lottery tickets, guns and “adult entertainment.”

Illinois is not one of those states.

But it is one of 11 states where, statewide, food stamps don’t come with a work requirement. Federal law says that for able-bodied adults under age 50 who don’t have dependents, food stamps are cut off after three months unless he or she finds work or participates in volunteering or job training.

Illinois operates under a waiver from that requirement.

There are certainly changes needed to how welfare is administered in the Land of Lincoln. But the best welfare program is a well-paying job. And Illinoisans are struggling to find decent opportunities. The food-stamp rolls reflect that.

More than 1 in 5 Illinois households rely on food stamps to make ends meet. That’s close to an all-time high.

More than 1.9 million individual Illinoisans relied on food stamps in July, a high for the year. As of May, Illinois was home to the second-highest share of individuals on food stamps in the Midwest. More Illinoisans rely on food stamps than work in manufacturing, construction, education, health care and real estate combined.

Illinois’ dreadfully slow recovery from the Great Recession has a lot to do with it.

In terms of putting people back to work, Illinois has been the second-worst state in the nation. And since the start of the recession, the state’s personal-income growth is second worst as well.

Illinois’ manufacturing sector, the backbone of the middle class, is bleeding.

Illinois manufacturing has recovered less than 4 percent of its jobs since the recession, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s the worst rate in the Rust Belt.

So what happened to families who had a loved one lose a factory job? And what happened when unemployment benefits ran out?

A 2012 survey from Rutgers University sheds some light. Researchers asked people who were unemployed for more than two years how they made ends meet. Most sold some of their possessions, most borrowed money and most cut back on doctor visits.

The next most common response? Signing up for food stamps.

Reforms to grow the state’s economy ensure fewer families are forced to make that choice. And reforming the way the state administers those benefits would go a long way toward ensuring the program’s integrity.

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