USDA Focus on Nutrition Program 'Integrity' Is a Smokescreen
By Sarah Reinhardt
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has announced it will hire a new "chief integrity officer" to oversee federal nutrition programs such as the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs, Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps).
The integrity of SNAP in particular has been a popular topic among those in the Trump administration, including USDA Sec. Sonny Perdue, who argue that SNAP enables a "lifestyle of dependency" and seek major program reforms in the upcoming Farm Bill. But these arguments have been conjured from very little science and a whole lot of smoke—and have the effect of distracting the public from more pressing issues at hand.
SNAP is among the nation's most effective and efficient programs
Monitoring any government program is necessary to ensure that taxpayer dollars are being spent effectively, and the USDA does so through its quality control process and periodic reports on fraud and abuse. In fiscal year 2011, as part of the Obama administration's Campaign to Cut Waste, the USDA Office of Inspector General (OIG) conducted an extensive review of more than 15,000 stores for compliance with SNAP program rules. The results of these assessments, combined with USDA participation data, tell us the program is working as intended, and with remarkably few problems.
SNAP fraud1—broadly defined as exchanging benefits for cash or falsifying participant or retailer applications to illegally obtain or accept benefits—happens relatively infrequently, though it's difficult to measure. The USDA's most recent report on the topic estimated that it affected about 1.5 percent of all SNAP benefits received between 2012 and 2014. This represents a slight increase since the early 2000s (1.0 to 1.3 percent between 2002 and 2011), but remains substantially lower than in the 1990s, when reported rates were as high as 3.8 percent.
Compare this to some of the other federal programs contained in the Farm Bill—like crop insurance. Back in 2013, former USDA secretary Tom Vilsack voiced concerns about the integrity of crop insurance programs due to error and fraud rates that exceeded those of SNAP. As with SNAP, illegal activity is largely uncovered by way of criminal investigations. According to the Department of Justice, recent convictions and sentences connected with the federal crop insurance program have included the indictment of a Kentucky agricultural producer for insurance fraud, wire fraud, and money laundering; an Iowa farmer who received more than $450,000 in crop insurance proceeds illegally; a Louisiana farmer who created shell farms to receive more than $5.4 million in subsidy payments; and a Kentucky crop insurance agent whose clients received nearly $170,000 in indemnity payments for false claims. And those are just the cases from the last six months. Unlike SNAP, no chief integrity officer has been assigned to monitor fraud and abuse in the program.
So yes, we should be striving for continuous improvement in the operation of all federal programs. But explaining why SNAP in particular has come under such intense scrutiny requires some historical and political context—and a good understanding of who might benefit from maintaining old narratives.
The rise, fall and flatline of SNAP fraud
Though President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Food Stamp Act into law in 1964, the program began to gain popularity in the 1970s, when participation doubled from 5 million to 10 million over the course of the decade. As participation increased, the USDA began to discover incidents of abuse, eventually revealing a widespread pattern of illegal activity that would plague the program for the next twenty years. Reported rates of fraud at this time were between 10 and 20 percent.
The widespread abuse lent itself to growing public disapproval of the food stamps program and, accompanied by racist and classist rhetoric around so-called "welfare queens," fueled substantial program reform by the Reagan administration in the early 1980s.
But what likely ushered in drastic improvements in rates of fraud and abuse was the introduction of new electronic benefit transfer (EBT) systems, which fully replaced paper food stamps in 2004. In addition to requiring a 4-digit PIN number, EBT cards create a record of each purchase, increasing the ease with which agencies can identify and document illegal use.
That brings us, more or less, to the efficient and effective program that we've seen for the last decade.
Despite how well SNAP works, politicians have continued to frame it as a program that suffers from rampant misuse and illegal activity. For those seeking drastic budget cuts and reforms, that negative narrative grants permission to discredit both the program and those who use it—and one needs to look no further than President Trump's welfare reform proposals or Speaker Paul Ryan's comment about the tailspin of "inner-city culture" to know that the legacy of the welfare queen is alive and well.
Speaking of integrity…
To get a sense of where this is all headed, keep your eyes on USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue—if you can. He's been making some quick pivots lately.
At a May 2017 House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture hearing, Perdue stated that "SNAP has been a very important, effective program," and that the agency was considering no changes. "You don't try to fix something that isn't broken."
Less than a year later, the secretary has voiced his support for a number of proposed program changes, including stricter work requirements for adults without dependents. Not unlike the recent announcement aimed at nutrition program integrity, these proposals are often grounded more in political ideology than fact. USDA's own data shows that most SNAP participants who can work do work—albeit in unstable jobs—and counters the notion that participants stay on the program for long periods of time.
When the House releases its draft of the Farm Bill, which may happen as early as this week, Perdue's response (or lack thereof) could provide insight on the policy proposals he's prepared to support. More than likely, he'll continue to endorse the positions of his party—but then again, we've been surprised before.
- Fraud and abuse should be distinguished from error rates, or improper payment rates, which capture how often SNAP participants receive underpayment or overpayment of benefits. (The overwhelming majority of SNAP errors are attributed to unintentional error by recipients or administrative staff.) Program error rates have also experienced substantial declines in recent years: they reached an all-time low of 2 percent in 2013, down from 6.6 percent in 2003. And though a 2015 USDA OIG review of the quality control process found understated error rates in some states, the resulting corrective actions target state agencies—not individual SNAP participants.
- Chemicals in Cosmetics Linked to Lung Damage in Children, New ... ›
- 33 Toxic Hair Straighteners Under International Recall Still Sold in US ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
As the coronavirus has spread around the globe, so have the germs of misinformation and conspiracy theories about the new disease. Fake news about the virus is so prevalent that health professionals have started referring to it as an "infodemic."
- Doctors Aren't Just Fighting a Pandemic, but Also an 'Infodemic ... ›
- Trump Orders Hospitals to Stop Sending COVID-19 Data to CDC ... ›
- Facebook, Twitter Remove Trump Posts Sharing False COVID-19 Info ›
A new report shows the U.S. government bought more than $350 million in bonds issued by oil and gas companies and induced investors to loan the industry tens of billions more at artificially low rates since the coronavirus pandemic began, Bloomberg reported.
- Fed's Corporate Debt-Buying Could Mean Big Oil Bailout - EcoWatch ›
- Marathon Petroleum Takes Bailout Tax Breaks During Pandemic ... ›
By Karen Charman
When President Donald Trump visited California on September 14 and dismissed the state Secretary of Natural Resources Wade Crowfoot's plea to recognize the role of climate change in the midst of the Golden State's worst and most dangerous recorded fire season to date, he gaslighted the tens of millions of West Coast residents suffering through the ordeal.
Foxes Guarding the Henhouse<p>Before he assumed power, Trump attacked regulations as unnecessary barriers to freedom and economic prosperity. Since taking office, he has targeted anything enacted by the administration of his predecessor, Barack Obama, and taken steps to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris agreement, the international effort to combat climate change. He has also staffed heads of key agencies with climate deniers of various stripes, forced out career public servants and created a hostile work environment for those who don't profess loyalty to his deregulatory agenda.</p><p>Like Trump himself, some of his cabinet choices displayed an audacious penchant for <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/09/27/us/donald-trump-taxes.html?action=click&module=Spotlight&pgtype=Homepage" target="_blank">self-dealing</a> and abusing their positions of authority. One example is Trump's first Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator, Scott Pruitt, who aggressively worked to overturn Obama's climate regulations, spent most of his time in <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/trump-epa-head-steps-down-after-wave-of-ethics-management-scandals/2018/07/05/39f4251a-6813-11e8-bea7-c8eb28bc52b1_story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">private meetings</a> with fossil fuel and chemical company executives, sidelined career EPA staff and reconfigured independent scientific advisory boards to make them more supportive of the industries EPA is charged with regulating. Dubbed "<a href="https://www.latimes.com/politics/la-na-pol-pruitt-leaves-20180705-story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">one of the most scandal-plagued Cabinet officials in U.S. history</a>," Pruitt resigned in disgrace after revelations about his multiple brazen abuses, including using the agency as his personal concierge service and piggy bank.</p><p>Pruitt's deputy, Andrew Wheeler, a <a href="https://www.cbsnews.com/news/andrew-wheeler-acting-epa-administrator-former-number-two-before-scott-pruitt-resignation/" target="_blank">former coal industry lobbyist</a> and longtime Republican Washington insider, took over and has continued Trump's deregulatory agenda apace.</p><p>At the Department of Interior (DOI), a sprawling agency that oversees 75 percent of the country's public federal lands and includes the U.S. Geological Survey, which is tasked with evaluating natural hazards that threaten life and the health of our ecosystems, Trump installed another flamboyant anti-environmentalist to head the agency. Like Pruitt, Trump's first Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke aggressively attacked environmental regulations, <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2017/05/07/epa-dismisses-half-of-its-scientific-advisers-on-key-board-citing-clean-break-with-obama-administration/" target="_blank">ditched more than 200 advisory panels</a>, and pushed to open up vast swaths of public land to oil and gas drilling. Described by one environmental group as "<a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/interior-secretary-zinke-resigns-amid-investigations/2018/12/15/481f9104-0077-11e9-ad40-cdfd0e0dd65a_story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the most anti-conservation Interior secretary in our nation's history</a>," Zinke was forced out after numerous highly publicized conflict-of-interest scandals.</p><p>The DOI is now run by Zinke's deputy secretary, David Bernhardt, another longtime Republican Washington insider and former oil industry lobbyist who has also been the subject of <a href="https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2020/05/this-is-still-happening-david-bernhardt-trump-lincoln.html" target="_blank">several government ethics complaints</a> for various violations favoring polluting industries.</p><p>More recently, longtime climate change denier David Legates, a climatologist at the University of Delaware previously <a href="https://insideclimatenews.org/news/19032015/u-delaware-refuses-disclose-funding-sources-its-climate-contrarian" target="_blank">funded by fossil fuel interests</a>, was hired for a <a href="https://www.npr.org/2020/09/12/912301325/longtime-climate-science-denier-hired-at-noaa" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">top job</a> advancing weather modeling and prediction at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Legates has called for <a href="https://www.democracynow.org/2020/9/18/noaa_david_legates_climate_crisis" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">increasing carbon emissions</a>.</p><p>The Trump administration has done much more than stack government agencies with fossil fuel industry proponents. It has removed or diluted discussion of climate change from as many government platforms as it can and decimated independent scientific advisory boards that provide unbiased, fact-based information the government needs to enact policies that protect the public. It has also <a href="https://thehill.com/policy/energy-environment/482352-trump-budget-slashes-funding-for-epa-environmental-programs" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">slashed environmental agency staffing and budgets</a>.</p>
The Damage So Far<p>A September 17 <a href="https://rhg.com/research/the-rollback-of-us-climate-policy/" target="_blank">report</a> by the Rhodium Group calculates that 1.8 billion tons more greenhouse gases will be released over the next 15 years as a result of climate change rollbacks the Trump administration has achieved so far. These include repealing Obama's main climate policy, the Clean Power Plan, which was intended to reduce dirty emissions from power plants; increasing pollution from cars by rolling back fuel economy standards and challenging California's longtime authority to set stricter emissions standards; targeting controls on hydrofluorocarbons, powerful greenhouse gases used mainly in refrigerators and air conditioners that also destroy the Earth's protective ozone layer; and allowing unreported and unregulated emissions of methane, another potent greenhouse gas, by oil and gas companies.</p><p>Besides these measures, Trump is also trying to gut core environmental statutes like the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act, all of which were enacted to protect human health and preserve a livable world.</p><p>The Paris agreement aims to keep the rise in average global temperatures at less than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and hopefully cap it at 1.5 degrees C or lower. We are now at approximately 1.2 degrees C and counting.</p>
- Trump Admin Guts Endangered Species Act in the Midst of Climate ... ›
- Climate Change Purged From White House Website - EcoWatch ›
- California Burns Because of the Climate Crisis While Trump ... ›
By Jan Ellen Spiegel
It wasn't so long ago that the issue of climate change was poised to play a huge – possibly even a decisive – role in the 2020 election, especially in the race for control of the U.S. Senate. Many people supporting Democratic candidates saw a possible Democratic majority as a hedge against a potential Trump re-election … a way to plug the firehose spray of more than 100 environmental regulation rollbacks and new anti-climate initiatives by the administration over its first term.
Potential Climate Voters<p>In a September 1 memo on climate and the election, Andrew Baumann, vice president of the consultants Global Strategy Group, wrote: "Few issues have seen as dramatic a shift in public opinion as climate change has over the last few years. Only marriage equality and the recent shift in views around racial justice outpace the rapid growth in the salience of climate change as an issue."</p><p>Calling it a "winning political issue" the memo says: "First, it is clearly a motivator for both younger and Latinx voters. Second, it has the power to move swing voters, particularly center-right white women."</p><p>Baumann points to a finding that when a group of such women were asked generic ballot questions, Democrats trailed by nine percentage points. But when the question was revised as a choice between:</p><p>"A Democrat who supports taking strong government action to combat climate change.<br>A Republican who opposes taking strong government action to combat climate change."</p><p>… the result was a 29 percentage point shift, putting Democrats ahead by 20 percentage points among that same group.</p><p>"I think it is playing a role," says Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, D-RI, a longtime outspoken climate activist who is on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and also on the Senate Democrats' Special Committee on the Climate Crisis. If Democrats win back the Senate, he stands to play an even more pivotal climate role as part of the majority. He is not up for re-election this year.</p><p><span></span>"I think from the Democratic side it's playing a role in generating enthusiasm – particularly making younger voters feel that they have a real stake in this election. On the Republican side, I think things have moved enough that candidates can no longer get away with simply scoffing about climate change."</p>
Climate a Top Concern for Youths, Latinx<p>So who's still thinking climate? Mostly young voters – 18 to 25 or 29 and Latinx voters.</p><p>Climate and the environment are the top concern among young voters, just above racism and healthcare according to <a href="https://circle.tufts.edu/latest-research/poll-young-people-believe-they-can-lead-change-unprecedented-election-cycle" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">CIRCLE</a>, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, which focuses on the political life of young people in the U.S. For Latinx youth, it drops a bit but remains in the top three.</p><p>The issues young people care about have an impact on how they volunteer their time, says Kristian Lundberg, an associate researcher at CIRCLE. He says that's played out most notably through the Sunrise Movement, which focuses on climate change and the environment along with other key activist groups such as Black Lives Matter and March for Our Lives.</p><p>He points to polling this summer that showed that 83% of 18-to-29-year-olds felt they had the power to change things. "Young people feel much more empowerment than in 2016 and 2018," Lundberg says. "It's intentional these movements are carving out space for young people. It's an important strategy."</p><p>In positions of power in these organizations, young people have developed peer-to-peer outreach on activism. And Lundberg says young people have made the leap that connects activism to voting as a lever for change. "In the past in very close races, young people breaking heavily have provided the margin of victory," he says.</p><p>CIRCLE is highlighting 10 U.S. Senate races as ones in which young voters can be decisive. Several of them have notable climate or environmental components – most prominently the Colorado and Montana races.</p><p>The Republican incumbents in each state – Cory Gardner in Colorado and Steve Daines in Montana – are running against a popular Democratic governor – John Hickenlooper in Colorado, now out of office — and Steve Bullock, still the governor of Montana. Both governors have had to balance their state's fossil fuel economic interests with supporting climate change solutions.</p>
Tying Climate Change to the Economy<p>In August, Data for Progress, a progressive research think tank, released polling on climate change – including in the battleground Senate elections in Arizona, Iowa, Maine, and North Carolina – showing voters back a Senate candidate supporting strong climate action.</p><blockquote>Climate change as 'mobilizing issue … key persuasion issue.'<br></blockquote><p>It also showed that linking climate change to the economy may be key. That means talking about clean energy and jobs together, says Danielle Deiseroth, climate data analyst for <a href="https://circle.tufts.edu/latest-research/poll-young-people-believe-they-can-lead-change-unprecedented-election-cycle" target="_blank">Data for Progress</a>. She says that in addition to jobs, climate change issues include climate justice and economic equality – both of heightened interest because of fallout from western wildfires.</p><p>"Climate change, we've observed over the last year or so, is a key mobilizing issue and a key persuasion issue," she says. "Climate issues can only grow support for Democratic candidates.</p><p>"I think it's pretty naive to say climate is the key issue for voters. For a lot of voters it really exemplifies so many things that are wrong with the Trump presidency," Deiseroth says.</p><p>So a factor among others. Helpful, but pivotal only in narrow circumstances.</p><p>At the League of Conservations Voters, a progressive environmentalist organization putting a lot of money and effort into the 2020 races, Senior Director of Political Affairs Craig Auster says: "I'll push back that climate change doesn't matter or isn't registering."</p><p>"It's still showing up in several Senate races. It's been playing a role in almost all of them."</p><p>Candidates are still talking about it, he says, pointing to Colorado, Montana, Iowa, and other states where ads are addressing climate and environmental issues. That shows the candidates believe their opponent is vulnerable on the issue or they're strong on it, he says.</p><p>Like others, Auster calls climate a motivator.</p><p>"Climate change matters," he says. "We have proof point after proof point about what's happening, whether it's a hurricane, a superstorm, derechos in Iowa, or wildfires out west.</p><p>"Pre-COVID it was top tier for Democratic voters along with healthcare. If COVID didn't happen I think climate would be a big deal."</p>
- Green New Deal Champion Ed Markey Defeats Joe Kennedy III ... ›
- These Races Will Shape How U.S. Elections Affect Climate Progress ... ›
- Outdoor Brand Patagonia Wants You to 'Vote the A**holes Out ... ›